Groups Question NRA Disclosure Bill Deal

An amendment to Chris Van Hollen's Disclose Act is under fire.

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House Democrats made an amendment to a financial disclosure bill that would exempt one of the largest, most powerful lobbies in Washington. And some organizations feel slighted by the carve-out.

After the Supreme Court decided in January to dissolve the cap on how much money a corporation can give to a campaign, congressional Democrats crafted legislation in both chambers that would require stricter methods of campaign finance disclosure. Rep. Chris Van Hollen's DISCLOSE Act would require special interest group officials to physically appear at the end of campaign ads they sponsor, acknowledging their campaign contributions, and to disclose their campaign related expenditures on their websites. [See where Van Hollen's campaign cash comes from.]

But the National Rifle Association said the original bill was unconstitutional and "would have undermined or obliterated virtually all of the NRA's right to free political speech," suggesting that putting restrictions on campaign activity also limits political speech.

So the House amended the bill to exempt organizations that have over 1 million members, have been in existence for at least a decade, and receive less than 15 percent of their funding from corporations. The NRA says it has 4 million members.

A House Democratic aide said lawmakers are working to have the full bill on the floor this week.

The AARP also technically qualifies for exemption, but the organization does not sponsor ad campaigns. "We haven't been involved in this process at all," says Jim Dau, spokesman for the AARP. "We don't endorse candidates, make political contributions, or more relevant to the DISCLOSE Act, do any election-based advertising for or against any candidate or party." 

The NRA is happy with the legislative changes made, and said that as long as the amendment is in place, they will stay out of the legislative process. 

But the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is upset that a large and influential organization like the NRA, a group they oppose, would not be subject to the same rules as others. The non-profit's president, Paul Helmke, says the proposed exemption is "outrageous and cynical." He says the Brady Campaign is supportive of financial disclosure laws on the condition that they apply to all types of organizations. "It's another thing when we have to follow those rules and the NRA doesn't," says Helmke. "To say the biggest guy on the block doesn't have to do this is outrageous."

Helmke says the Brady Campaign will not ask Congress for exemptions. But he is disappointed in lawmakers. "They promise reform, but it's certainly not reform when they say that the big guys don't have to live by the rules they write for the little guys," says Helmke, suggesting Congress crafted restrictions geared toward smaller organizations.

Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the Public Interest Research Group, agrees. She said that while "the meat of the bill is great," the PIRG won't support it with a nuanced provision that exempts some organizations. "The bill is designed to shed sunlight and increase disclosure," says Gilbert. "It's hard to really countenance a two tiered system with a huge carve-out and different setups that amend special interests."

But other advocacy groups like the Campaign Legal Center are supportive of the measure and say the need to get the bill passed trumps the politics surrounding it. "It's not as we would have written it," says David Vance, spokesman for the CLC. "The main thrust is that groups of the size and scope in this exemption are known entities," he said, suggesting that ads sponsored by the NRA are recognizable regardless of whether they disclose their sponsorship. 

Vance says the CLC is more concerned with the amount of money flowing into campaigns, especially with an election approaching in November. "The potential impact is harmful to our democracy and a fix needs to be in place before this money destroys [it]". 

In the past year, gun rights organizations have given $550,456 to congressional campaigns, with a little over $140,000 of that going to Democrats. [See who receives money from gun rights organizations.]