Republicans, liberal groups oppose proposed campaign-finance exemption for NRA

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; 6:10 PM

A proposed campaign-finance deal aimed at mollifying the National Rifle Association came under attack Tuesday from Republican opponents and some liberal advocacy organizations, who say they object to exempting a few large groups from having to disclose their top political donors.

House legislation proposed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) would require most nonprofit groups, corporations and unions to identify top donors and other information related to spending on advertising and other political activities. The bill is aimed at pushing back against a Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for corporate and union spending for elections.

But under a proposed exemption announced Monday, longstanding national groups that have more than 1 million members and that receive 15 percent or less of their funding from corporations would not have to abide by a key requirement to disclose top donors. The proposal was aimed clearly at the NRA -- which signaled it would oppose the legislation otherwise -- but legislative aides said the exemption could also apply to a handful of other large organizations, including the AARP seniors group and the Humane Society of the United States.

Several key reform groups immediately backed the agreement as an unsavory but necessary way to move ahead with the legislation, including the Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Public Citizen and Democracy 21. But others on the liberal end of the political spectrum cried foul, saying they would oppose the legislation with the NRA language as an unfair giveaway to a large lobbying group.

"This exemption is something we can't stomach, so we're opposing it until it's removed," said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

David Willett, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the environmental group has also decided to oppose the legislation, known as the Disclose Act, in part because the NRA-related exemption would create a "two-tier" system of oversight. He said the legislation would also place unfair limits on the Sierra Club's grass-roots lobbying activities.

"While we support its broader goals, we are opposed to the bill in its current state," Willett said.

The scattered opposition on the left further complicates the political outlook for the legislation, which also faces strong opposition from Republican lawmakers, major business groups and some conservative organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee. Democratic leaders in the House say they hope to bring the revised bill to the floor as early as this week; a companion bill awaits consideration in the Senate.

Van Hollen said in an interview that he is "very confident" the legislation will pass the House with the compromise, possibly as early as this week.

"The heart of the legislation remains very much intact," he said. " . . . A good number of our members wanted to address concerns that were raised by large citizen-based organizations that were not trying to fool anybody as to their identity. That's what this agreement does."

The NRA said in a statement Tuesday that the original legislation "would have undermined or obliterated virtually all of the NRA's right to free political speech and, therefore, jeopardized the Second Amendment rights of every law-abiding American." But with the deal announced Monday, the NRA said, it would no longer weigh in on the debate over the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), normally a staunch NRA supporter, attacked the House compromise and reiterated his opposition to the legislation as an attack on the free-speech rights of corporations.

"If there is one thing Americans loathe about Washington, it's the backroom dealing to win the vote of organizations with power and influence at the expense of everyone else," McConnell said in a statement. "Taxpayers are still fuming over a health care process where their money was thrown around like a high roller in a hotel lobby to win last-minute votes, and now the same backroom dealing is being repeated with their freedom of speech."

Fred Wertheimer, a prominent campaign-reform activist who heads Democracy 21, said most corporations, unions and nonprofit advocacy groups would still be required to disclose details about top political donors.

"This exemption has been deemed necessary to pass the bill, but since it is so narrow it will not open a major loophole in the legislation," Wertheimer said.

The bills in the House and Senate come 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 in a separate 8-to-1 ruling that the government was free to impose broad disclosure requirements for such spending.

The bills would require companies and organizations 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 are required to do.

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