Carving out an exemption for the NRA to the individual donor disclosure requirement of the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175) is a strategic decision by congressional leaders to get the measure approved by the House. It is a troubling decision, but the carve-out poses little damage to the overall objectives of the bill.
The legislation still provides what the public desperately needs in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision: full disclosure of corporate and wealthy funding sources behind express advocacy ads and electioneering communications; extends the electioneering communications window to cover most of an election period; and applies some restrictions on major government contractors and foreign entities in financing campaign ads.
The NRA (and AARP and Humane Society) will still have to disclose in their ads that they are financed by the NRA and report to the FEC how much the NRA spends on electioneering activity. The head of the NRA will have to do a stand-by-your-ad disclaimer in each ad. Corporate money cannot be used by the NRA to finance these ads, and the sources of funds given to the NRA and earmarked for campaign ads will continue to be subject to disclosure under campaign finance laws. Personally I ardently disagree with the NRA’s politics, and I find the exemption reprehensible as a give-in to a powerful special interest, but the NRA is not a front group for corporate interests and so its exemption from disclosing its individual donors does not fundamentally undermine the DISCLOSE Act.
When the Supreme Court decided unilaterally to re-write the nation’s campaign finance laws and allow unlimited corporate spending in elections, it has become imperative for Congress to give voters a chance to know who is paying how much to influence our elections. The DISCLOSE Act closes major loopholes in the current disclosure laws – loopholes that will become all the more problematic as corporations seek ways to influence elections and pressure lawmakers by funneling money into innocuous-sounding outside groups to handle their advertising campaigns secretly on their behalf. This measure is far too important to sacrifice.
It is not at all evident to me that passage of this bill required a special provision exempting the NRA from disclosing its individual donors. We had a great bill written and ready on May 27th. But when other non-profit groups joined the NRA in demanding loopholes in the disclosure requirements, congressional leaders withdrew the bill and renegotiated it. Rep. Van Hollen held firm against poking gaping loopholes in the measure, and finally agreed to the limited exemption principally benefiting the NRA. The political strategy seems to be a wash, because now other non-profits are opposing the legislation unless they too get carve-outs.
We cannot let special interest politics prevail. Any further amendments or negotiations to weaken the disclosure requirements must be rejected, and the DISCLOSE Act made law by the July 4th recess. Though no one is sure because there are no effective disclosure requirements, it appears that corporate political spending has already increased threefold in the first quarter of 2010 – and we have not even entered the high-spending general election yet. Unless the DISCLOSE Act is approved promptly, and perhaps improved after becoming law, we will enter the free-spending 2010 elections totally blind.
Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.