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

An attempt in Congress to carve an exemption for the National Rifle Association (NRA) in a campaign-reform bill only adds to the anti-incumbent mood in America.

Trust in Washington is so low that it is startling when Congress further erodes the public’s trust by offering more perks to special interests such as the National Rifle Association (NRA).

Lawmakers still seem to ignore the hard facts before them about their unprecedented unpopularity: Only 3 in 10 Americans plan to vote for their House representative this fall, according to a Gallup poll. An amazing 60 percent of voters would prefer to elect a candidate for Congress who has had no experience rather an incumbent.

And yet despite this anti-incumbent mood in America, the House tried in recent days to play favorites with the NRA. It effectively carved out an exemption for the 4.5-million-member, pro-gun organization in a bill – and here’s the irony – aimed at reducing the power of private groups in politics.

The bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act, is the Democrats’ response to a Supreme Court decision this past January (Citizens United v. FEC). That ruling, which cited the First Amendment’s free-speech clause, bars legal limits on what corporations, unions, and other groups can do in a political campaign during the final months before an election.

While the ruling is troublesome in not acknowledging the corrupting influence of money on American democracy, the provisions of the DISCLOSE Act that would favor one group over another in restricting free speech is clearly unconstitutional.

The provision that was tailored specifically for the NRA to exempt it from rules on campaign activities was deemed necessary to keep the NRA from muscling lawmakers to vote against the bill. The group is so powerful in its use of campaign money that it can eliminate legislation with one click of its lobbying trigger.

The gun lobby, however, didn’t count on an uprising among African-Americans in Congress who favor gun control. To the credit of these urban lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus – who know that allowing the easy sale of guns in cities is the moral equivalent of yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater – forced the Democratic leadership to withdraw the bill for now. A House vote that was scheduled on the DISCLOSE Act for Friday was quietly canceled.

The bill has other problems of fairness.

It is far more restrictive on corporations than labor unions. Previous campaign-reform laws enjoyed some measure of bipartisanship in order to make sure they weren’t later overturned by a later Congress. Passing a measure that so clearly favors the interest groups of one party over another could easily not last long in the shifts of political power.

In previous campaign-reform laws, the NRA was not exempt from their reach. There is no reason to favor this one group now.

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