Did Democrats' deal with the NRA kill campaign finance reform?

At issue is a deal brokered by the House Democratic leadership to exempt the powerful National Rifle Association and others from disclosure requirements in a new campaign finance law.

By , Staff writer

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    A man looks through a scope on a mock rifle during the National Rifle Association's 139th annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, last month. A deal to exempt the NRA derailed a new campaign finance law.
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The derailing this week of the House Disclose Act gave Republicans – still reeling from Rep. Joe Barton’s “apology” to BP CEO Tony Hayward this week – a rare chance to gloat about the pitfalls of cozying up to special interests.

“Van Hollen’s carve-out for special interests has proven about as popular as first-time World Cup ref Koman Coulibaly’s blown call today, which cost the United States a victory,” said House Republican whip Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia in a blog today. His barb was aimed at Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

At issue is a deal brokered by the House Democratic leadership to exempt the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and others from disclosure requirements in a new campaign finance law. The legislation aimed to restore campaign finance limits stripped away by a controversial 5-4 US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which scrapped restrictions on when and how much corporations and unions can spend to influence elections.

The proposed law would ban some corporations from funding campaign ads and require others to disclose their top five donors in ads and on their websites.

“We believe voters have an absolute right to know who is spending money to try to influence their vote. And this will prevent big special interests from hiding behind front organizations, sham entities, to try and hide from the voter what they're doing. Nobody, nobody should be afraid of this transparency unless they have something to hide,” said Rep. Van Hollen in a press conference introducing the act on April 29.

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But cribbing from President Obama’s playbook in cutting early deals with pharmaceutical companies and other potential opponents to move health care legislation, Democrats this week cut deals exempting the NRA as well as the Sierra Club, the Humane Society, and AARP from disclosure requirements in the bill.

The initial deal exempted organizations with more than 1 million members, in existence more than 10 years, with members in all 50 states, and no more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations. Only the NRA met those criteria. On Thursday, House leaders lowered the threshold to 500,000 members – a change that also exempted the Sierra Club, AARP, and the Humane Society.

The backroom deals set off a firestorm among the unexempted and their allies in the House, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to postpone a vote that had been expected on Friday.

“We remain very troubled about the creation of two-tiers of coverage for this legislation and would prefer no exceptions at all," said Reps. Raul Grijalva (D) of Arizona and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a June 17 letter to Speaker Pelosi.

Meanwhile, business groups not part of the carveout rallied their own supporters on Capitol Hill, including moderates in the Blue Dog caucus, to resist the special deals.

“The political, special-interest nature of the legislation is reflected in the recent addition to the bill of the NRA exemption," says R. Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce.

“This ad hoc carve-out is specifically tailored to exempt the National Rifle Association from the bill’s key restrictions and burdens. The admitted purpose was to end the NRA’s opposition to the bill to secure passage,” he adds. “This is clear and unconstitutional discrimination in favor of one speaker and against others.”

House Democratic leaders remain committed to the legislation, including the NRA carve out, and expect to bring it back to the floor as soon as they can line up more votes.

The NRA initially backed the Supreme Court decision.

“This ruling is a victory for anyone who believes that the First Amendment applies to each and every one of us,” said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre in a statement on Jan. 21. “This is a defeat for arrogant elitists who wanted to carve out free speech as a privilege for themselves and deny it to the rest of us; and for those who believed that speech had a dollar value and should be treated and regulated like currency, and not a freedom.

On May 26, the NRA had announced opposition to the bill as “intimidating speech,” but dropped opposition after the carveout.

Related:

Congress can't play favorites with the NRA in campaign reform

Campaign finance ruling: Can Congress do anything?

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