Opposition may derail campaign disclosure bill

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010; 5:01 PM

Campaign disclosure legislation strongly backed by President Obama and Democratic leaders has run into serious obstacles in the House, where lawmakers are scrambling to mollify the National Rifle Association, the AFL-CIO and other groups that say the bill is too burdensome and could force them to publicly identify small donors.

Opposition from those strange bedfellows is further complicating the chance of passage this year for the "Disclose Act," which would impose broad new disclosure requirements on corporations, unions and nonprofit groups that spend money on political advocacy campaigns. Democrats led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) had hoped to secure approval of the legislation in time for this year's midterm elections.

The bills in the House and Senate were formulated in response to a landmark 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which allows corporations and unions to spend as much as they want on political advertising. But the high court also held that the government was free to impose broad disclosure requirements for such spending.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) told reporters Wednesday that "there are a number of very legitimate concerns" raised by nonprofit groups about the legislation but said that he was confident Van Hollen would be able to work out the differences and that the House could consider the legislation as soon as next week. He did not answer a reporter's question about whether the NRA might be specifically exempted from the bill.

"We are working to resolve a few remaining issues and we will have the bill on the floor as soon as possible," said Van Hollen spokesman Doug Thornell. "Letting the sunlight in is never an easy thing in this town."

Under the legislation, companies and organizations would have to identify themselves on ads that they pay for; disclose information about such expenditures to shareholders and the public; and stand by the message of any ads through statements from a chief executive or other top official, much as political candidates currently are required to do. The proposals would also bar government contractors and foreign-owned corporations -- defined as having at least 20 percent overseas shareholders -- from spending money on U.S. elections.

The proposals attracted immediate opposition from Republican leaders and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which accused Democrats of attempting to muzzle corporations for political gain. But new objections from the NRA, the AFL-CIO and others dramatically complicate the political calculus for Democrats since both the gun lobby and organized labor wield major influence on Capitol Hill.

In a May 26 letter to members of Congress, NRA Executive Director Chris Cox alleged that the bill would "require the NRA to reveal private internal discussions with our four million members about political communications" and "creates a series of byzantine disclosure requirements that have the obvious effect of intimidating speech." Cox pointed in particular to requirements that top contributors be identified in connection with television and Internet advertising, mass mailings and automated telephone calls.

Cox said such requirements are unfair for a group such as the NRA supported by millions of small donors. "There is no reason to include the NRA in overly burdensome disclosure and reporting requirements that are supposedly aimed at so-called 'shadow' groups," he wrote.

NRA representatives have met with Van Hollen about their concerns, while AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), according to sources familiar with the meetings.

Amaya Tune, a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO, told Bloomberg this week that "the final bill should treat corporations different than democratic organizations such as unions. We believe the legislation should counter the excessive and disproportionate influence by big business and guarantee effective disclosure of who is paying for what."

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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