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Conservatives and Liberals Angry over NRA's DISCLOSE Act Deal

June 21, 2010 - by Moshe Bildner

Last Tuesday, House Democrats announced that they had made progress in passing HR 5175, the DISCLOSE Act by rewriting the bill to exclude several organizations from its strict disclosure provisions.

Among other things, the original bill would have required public organizations to disclose a list of any contributors who have donated more than $600,  as well as to feature a list of their top donors on all political advertisements within 90 days of an election. Additionally, the bill would prohibit government contractors and foreign organizations from funding political advertisements.

Last Tuesday’s amendment, however, offered exclusions from the bill’s disclosure requirements to organizations meeting oddly specific criteria.  The amendment was offered by self avowed “blue dog democrat” Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC 11) and according to Politico.com, offers exemptions to any organizations that “have more than 1 million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations”.   

As many commentators immediately noted, that description fits a tiny group of organizations.  In fact, many pundits and politicians could only think of one group that met all the amendment’s criteria: the National Rifle Association (NRA).  The Huffington Post quoted a congressional staffer as saying “If you were to go to Webster’s Dictionary and look up the definition for the NRA it would be that type of organization [that would qualify for the exemption].”  Some cried foul, arguing that the amendment had was offered as an attempt to stave off opposition from the NRA, which had threatened to fight the bill on First Amendment grounds.  This suspicion appeared to be confirmed by the NRA, which announced that as a result of the amendment “the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill.”

The NRA’s original opposition to the bill was voiced in an open letter to Congress by Chris W. Cox, chairman of the NRA’s Institute for Legal Action.  In it, he had complained that “H.R. 5175 [the DISCLOSE Act] would require the NRA to turn our membership and donor lists over to the government”, and that “The bill would empower the Federal Election Commission to require the NRA to reveal private, internal discussions with our four million members about political communications.”  Cox did not go into details about how the new law would do so. 

In addition, Cox made the case that the NRA deserved a specific exemption from disclosure laws because it is such a highly public institution.  Writing that “while there are some groups that have run ads and attempted to hide their identities, the NRA isn’t one of them… When the NRA runs ads, we clearly and proudly put our name on them. Indeed, that’s what our members expect us to do. There is no reason to include the NRA in overly burdensome disclosure and reporting requirements that are supposedly aimed at so-called ‘shadow’ groups.”  The letter did not explain why the NRA would oppose a mandatory disclosure law bringing the rest of the lobbying industry up to what Cox claims is their standard. 

Outrage at the deal was swift in coming.  Our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation decried the deal as the “willful creation of a blatant loophole that entirely contradicts the intent of the underlying bill [and] is almost too much to accept.”  Conservative comentators too raged about the amendment, accusing the NRA of trading its principles in exchange for preferential treatment by congress.  A blog post appearing on both the Heritage Foundation and the National Review online accused the NRA of “selling out” to Congress, and worried that “the NRA may end up providing the lobbying grease that allows this noxious and partisan piece of legislation to slide through the House.”

On Monday, the White House announced its strong support for the bill, despite the NRA exemption. 

House Democrats, had originally rejected the idea that this was a deal aimed specifically at the NRA, pointing out that such groups as the Humane Society would also be exempt under the new laws. This position will be more complicated to explain given the timing of the NRA’s announcement that it will not oppose the bill immediately after such an extremely narrow loophole was added. 

The NRA is widely seen as an immensely powerful organization.  According to data from OpenSecrets.org, the NRA has made political contributions in excess of $1.3 Million in 2010, and $4.9 Million the year before.  The Humane Society, by contrast, spent a total of $525,000 in the 2008 election cycle.

More ominous still to transparency advocates is the fear that this will not be the last loophole written into the bill.  “The fact that the NRA could demand such an exception… demonstrates why we need more, not less, sunlight on the entire process”, write our colleagues at the Sunlight Foundation, it “raises the concern that yet another organization will demand its own carve-out as the bill works its way through the Senate.”





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