Democrats on Monday touted a major breakthrough in campaign finance reform legislation that could drastically alter the shape and course of the 2010 elections. But in the process of securing the necessary concessions, the party confirmed the widespread assumption that special interests can literally write legislation if they have enough clout.
Facing the distinct possibility that months of collaboration on the DISCLOSE Act would fail, House Democrats granted the National Rifle Association a nearly exclusive exemption from the stringent new standards that they were applying for campaign finance disclosure. Almost all other companies and organizations would be required under the bill to include identification on the ads they sponsor and to provide shareholders with information on those political expenditures. According to House Democrats, the Humane Society and the AARP would qualify for the exemption as well. But other major, politically active institutions like the AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce, and MoveOn.org would not.
It was a remarkable piece of lobbying on the gun lobby's behalf. So much so that even the most jaded Hill staffer, good government official or NRA opponent was left in awe.
"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]," said one senior House aide.
"It truly is amazing," said Paul Helmke, a spokesman for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "We are not talking 2nd Amendment issues at all. We are not talking gun bans or background checks. We are talking campaign finance disclosure. I have never seen this before. I have seen people get earmarks for things. Here it seems like the NRA has tooth marks instead."
"I have a long history in the arena of campaign finance reform," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which begrudgingly is supporting the bill. "I know reform legislation is as strong as its weakest, smallest loophole, and this is a huge one. Of all of the distasteful moments in inside-the-beltway sausage-making, this one has to take the cake. You have an exemption that appears to be created for one single organization only, one single organization that is the largest -- next to [the union] SEIU -- creator of independent expenditures... It's an outrage."
House Democratic leadership certainly understands the political pressures. Over the past two election cycles, the party has been able to secure and then significantly advance the size of its majority. But it did so primarily through the recruitment of candidates who were fully beholden to the NRA. A leadership aide told the Huffington Post that there are anywhere between 40-50 Democrats in the House who will refuse to buck the gun lobby on legislation it cares about. Another aide said there are roughly 260 members of the entire House (Republicans and Democrats alike) who will back the NRA's interests if called upon.
What this means, in short, is that legislation simply can't find its way into law without the NRA's explicit endorsement or its non-involvement. Earlier in the year, the group single-handedly killed an effort to give D.C. residents voting rights by getting lawmakers to attach an amendment that would have eliminated the District's tough gun laws -- an add-on so toxic that leadership pulled the bill before consideration.
"The NRA year after year is among the top tier of the most powerful organizations in Washington," added Sheila Krumholz, executive director of Center for Responsive Politics. "They have enormous membership, have a vocal group and they are bipartisan, as represented by [this exemption]. You do not take their threat to oppose or offer to support lightly."
With respect to campaign finance reform, the organization once again called in favors. For months, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) had been working on a legislative response to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision which effectively allowed corporations and other entities to spend unlimited funds on elections. His staff, along with Senator Chuck Schumer's office, was hoping to turn a legal crisis into a legislative advantage -- using the backlash to the court's decision to implement even tougher disclosure standards than previously existed. They were making slow progress, but progress nonetheless, until roughly three weeks ago when the NRA raised its objections to the bill.
Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) a leading Blue Dog and pro-gun rights Democrat, was tasked with crafting an amendment that would have served as a compromise between the two parties. But after lawyers reviewed the language, it seemed clear that Shuler's addition would have essentially exempted every 501(c)(4) organization from the new disclosure requirements.
"That wasn't his intent," a high-ranking Democratic aide said, "it was an unintended consequence of the amendment. So what we have been doing over the past couple weeks is to narrow that amendment so that we could maintain the support of the reform community and address the NRA concerns."
The result was an exemption tailored strictly to the NRA's desires. Six requirements were put in place for groups hoping to avoid the law's requirements. The organization had to be a 501(c)(4), at least for the past 10 years; it had to have at least one million dues-paying members at end of prior year; and have at least one such member in each state; it could not have more than 15% of its funds "provided" in last year from corporations or unions; and none of those corporate or union funds could be used for independent expenditures or electioneering communications.
"Essentially there is no way this bill could have passed if they had objected to it," the aide said. "There is just no way. The fact is, the speaker, the leadership, Van Hollen, they are all sympathetic to the concerns of our members who are NRA endorsed. There are a lot of them. This is not the same caucus as seven to eight years ago."
The question, in the end, was whether the good government community, in its efforts to crack down on special interests, would be willing to grant this one special interest compromise. It's been a mixed bag.
Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer worked alongside Van Hollen and Schumer's offices to craft the DISCLOSE Act. And having spent his career advancing the cause of campaign finance reform, he seems resigned to a political reality in which the perfect can't be the enemy of the good.
"This is not a deal that we wanted nor one that we liked in terms of the influence the NRA has in the legislative process," he told the Huffington Post, "but it is an agreement that allows legislation with very broad coverage for corporations, and labor unions and almost all c4 organizations, associations, and 527 groups to move forward. The legislative process is a messy process. But on balance we think this is well worth doing in order to get an enormous amount of new disclosure."
But Lisa Gilbert, an advocate for U.S. PIRG, said her organization would now oppose the bill based solely on the loophole that was offered. "We are now opposing the bill until the NRA exemption is removed," she said. "We think it is hard to look at a bill to reduce influence and increase sunlight and see a carve-out for a special interest and still support the bill... I understand the political pressure the NRA has brought to bear."
The House could vote as early as this week on the DISCLOSE Act, aides say, after which the bill will be considered by the Senate.