Another victory for the bulletproof NRA

Paul Helmke, of the Brady gun violence prevention group, critized a deal that would exempt the NRA from donor disclosure rules.
Paul Helmke, of the Brady gun violence prevention group, critized a deal that would exempt the NRA from donor disclosure rules. (Kevin Clark/the Washington Post)
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By Dan Eggen
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Even with Democrats in control of Washington, the National Rifle Association usually gets what it wants.

Long regarded as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in town, the GOP-friendly NRA has had a remarkable series of political victories in recent months that underscore its continuing influence on Capitol Hill -- no matter which party holds the reins and no matter what policy issues are involved.

The latest example came this week, when House Democrats announced a deal exempting the NRA and a handful of other large nonprofit groups from donor disclosure requirements in a proposed campaign-finance law. In exchange, the NRA agreed to back down from fomenting opposition to the bill.

In addition, the gun-rights group helped push legislation through the Democratic Congress last year that lifted a decades-old ban on carrying concealed weapons in most national parks and wildlife refuges. It also effectively scuttled congressional representation for the District by supporting pro-gun legislation attached to the bill; rebuffed attempts to stop the destruction of background-check records; and has blocked legislation to forbid gun purchases by people included on the government's terrorist watch list.

The reason for the group's recent successes? "It's a well-known fact that it's bad politics and bad policy to be on the wrong side of the gun issue," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam, adding that lawmakers are responding to strong support for Second Amendment rights among voters.

It's a message the group regularly sends to members of Congress, particularly Republicans and centrist Democrats who view opposing gun restrictions as a key issue for their most-motivated voters back home. The NRA deal on campaign disclosures came three weeks after the Fairfax-based group sent a blistering letter to House lawmakers, warning that it would oppose the bill as written -- and would hold yes votes against those who cast them.

With more than 4 million dues-paying members, the NRA has reported spending about $2.5 million on direct lobbying through its Institute for Legislative Action since the beginning of last year, according to disclosure reports. Over the past 20 years, the group has contributed more than $17 million to members of Congress, with more than 80 percent of the money going to Republicans, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

But the gun lobby's real influence is felt in areas not measured by official statistics, from vote scorecards used at election time to the millions spent on issue ads not documented in campaign reports. The group plans about $20 million in political spending this year, and the NRA's annual budget is $220 million, Arulanandam said.

Those kind of numbers only add to the frustration of gun-control activists such as Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center, which has a lobbying budget so small it doesn't have to be reported. Rand said the NRA has built "an aura of power" around itself despite its shortcomings, such as the group's failed campaign against President Obama in 2008.

"What the NRA has managed to do is turn an issue about life and death into an issue of pure politics," Rand said. "They've done it by pushing this myth that they are much more powerful than they really are."

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, called the NRA disclosure exemption "a demonstration of blatant political cynicism" by House Democrats. "It seems there is a new condition that must be met before almost any federal legislation is allowed to proceed: make sure the legislation doesn't upset the gun lobby bosses," Helmke wrote on his blog.

The two gun-control groups joined 43 other liberal-leaning organizations Wednesday in opposing the NRA deal, writing in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that it "is inappropriate and inequitable to create a two-tiered system of campaign finance laws and First Amendment protection."

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who negotiated the disclosure exemption that applies to the NRA, said that the deal was not aimed entirely at the gun lobby and that several other large groups, including the AARP seniors group, would also be covered. He declined to discuss whether the NRA is unusually prone to getting its way.

"The NRA and some other groups had expressed concerns," Van Hollen said, adding that negotiators could have drafted a narrower compromise if they intended to benefit only the gun lobby.

Arulanandam said the NRA does not have it as easy as critics suggest. "Nothing is easy for us," he said. "Whatever we are able to get, we have to work very hard for."

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