House passes campaign finance bill

By Ben Pershing
Thursday, June 24, 2010; 9:51 PM

House Democratic leaders pushed a sweeping new campaign finance reform measure through their chamber Thursday, overcoming the objections of critics on both the left and the right.

The DISCLOSE Act, written as a response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that allows corporations and unions unlimited spending on political ads, is the work of Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) and a priority for President Obama. Democrats believe that pushing to curb corporate spending on elections is a political winner for them that will put Republicans in a difficult position.

The bill -- which passed 219 to 206, with three dozen Democrats joining all but two Republicans in opposition -- took an unexpectedly difficult path to approval in the House, and now faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

It would impose stricter financial disclosure requirements on corporations and most interest groups, with some controversial exemptions, and place restrictions on political activity on companies that receive federal contracts or got money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

The measure would also crack down on campaign-related spending by foreign-owned companies, and would require company CEOs and interest group heads to appear on camera during their organizations' political advertisements.

"This legislation restores transparency and accountability to federal campaigns, and ensures that Americans know when Wall Street, Big Oil and health insurers are the ones behind political advertisements," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The bill has the support of many campaign watchdog organizations, but has raised the ire of a variety of groups -- from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club to the Tea Party Patriots and the American Conservative Union -- that oppose the new reporting rules.

At the urging of the National Rifle Association, which holds huge sway in Congress, a group of conservative Democrats negotiated a change in the bill's language. that would exempt the NRA from disclosure requirements. Under that deal, long-standing 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 disclose their top donors.

That angered a number of liberal lawmakers and gun-control supporters, particularly many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill was pulled from the House schedule last week as Democrats squabbled among themselves, and the measure was tweaked again this week to exempt a wider array of interest groups.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce led the effort to defeat the bill, and the business group made clear to lawmakers it would include Thursday's tally as a "key vote" on its annual congressional scorecard.

"Special deals, backroom bargains and political rewards have been the hallmark of this misguided mission to protect unpopular incumbents in Congress from losing their jobs," said chamber official R. Bruce Josten.

Republican lawmakers also denounced the bill, arguing that it impermissibly curbs free speech while absolving Democratic-leaning labor unions from some of the restrictions it forces on corporations. And they complained that a bill nominally dedicated to disclosure and transparency was being rewritten behind closed doors as late as Wednesday.

Democrats "want to use the majority here in the House to silence their political opponents, pure and simple," House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, asking: "Is there any other explanation for this bill?"

Democrats in turn accused Republicans of hypocrisy for opposing the bill, given that many in the GOP have in the past praised transparency and "sunlight" in the political process.

Obama made clear his view of the Citizens United decision during his State of the Union address in January, when he complained -- in the presence of several justices -- that "the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests." The White House said this week that while it "would have preferred no exemptions" for any groups, Obama supported the DISCLOSE Act and would sign it if it reaches his desk.

Calling the bill "a critical piece of legislation," Obama said in a statement Thursday that he welcomed the House action, and urged the Senate to pass its version quickly.

Normally, campaign finance reform bills that become law then go to the Federal Election Commission, which undertakes a lengthy process of writing new regulations. DISCLOSE is unusual, in that it would go into effect 30 days after the president signs it, raising the prospect that the law could apply at the height of this election year.

Some Democrats wonder privately whether the measure will ever get that far.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) released a letter this week offering reassurance to wary House Democrats that the bill has a chance of becoming law.

But while Reid and Schumer committed "to working tirelessly for Senate consideration of the House-passed bill," they offered no firm promise that the measure would ever hit the floor of their chamber. The Senate version has 50 co-sponsors and it's not clear whether the 60 votes necessary to overcome a certain GOP filibuster could be mustered.

Even if the bill does get to Obama's desk, it could face legal hurdles.

"I think the chances that it would be challenged [in court] would be 100 percent," said Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and the author of the Election Law Blog, adding that the bill's opponents would likely seek a preliminary injunction to bar it from going into effect.

Hasen noted that Democrats' revisions of the measure to exempt the NRA and some other organizations could be constitutionally problematic because it "creates different classes of groups."

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