House approves campaign disclosure bill nobody likes

McClatchy NewspapersJune 24, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would impose strict campaign donation disclosure requirements on unions and corporations, despite Republican opposition and objections from liberal Democrats who were upset by disclosure exemptions added to appease the National Rifle Association.

By a vote of 219 to 206, lawmakers approved the Disclose Act, intended to partially fill a void created when the Supreme Court overturned some campaign spending rules in January.

Democrats wrote the bill in the aftermath of the 5-4 decision that struck down decades-old laws barring corporations and unions from directly supporting campaigns. The case was Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

The bill mandates that most independent groups, including labor unions and corporations, must disclose the names of the top five donors whose money helped fund political ads.

It also would require corporate and union executives to appear in political ads that their organizations help pay for and say that he or she "approves this message," as candidates currently do in campaign commercials.

In addition, the measure would ban government contractors from contributing to campaigns, prevent federal TARP money recipients from using that money to influence elections, and curb foreign nationals and countries from contributing to campaigns.

"With this bill, no longer will corporations be able to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said prior to the vote. "By voting yes, we are putting power back into the hands of the voters."

The Disclose Act next moves to the Senate, where Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he's determined to pass it.

"We commit to working tirelessly for Senate consideration of the House-passed bill so it can be signed by the president in time to take effect for the 2010 elections," Reid wrote to House Democratic leaders. "We look forward to working with you to make sure that the Disclose Act gets signed into law."

Republicans balked at the bill, calling it unconstitutional and a naked attempt by Democrats to protect their candidates from campaign ads in coming elections.

"They want to use their majority here in the House to silence their political opponents, pure and simple, for just one election," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on the House floor.

Liberal Democrats also voiced disdain for the bill, largely because of a carve-out exemption from disclosure requirements that was originally added to keep the NRA from pressuring moderate and conservative Democrats to vote against the bill.

The original exemption was limited to groups with more than a million members, active in all 50 states, that derive no more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations and have existed for more than 10 years. After liberal Democrats threatened to sink the bill, Democratic leaders expanded the exemption to groups with more than 500,000 members.

Open government advocates say the exemption criteria now would apply to the AARP, the Humane Society and the Sierra Club, among many others, as well as the NRA. The expansion failed to soothe some liberal Democrats.

"As an early co-sponsor of Disclose, I am dismayed that we've fallen prey to bullying and threats from one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country," Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., said on the House floor. "Carving out an exception on behalf of one big group like this is just not the way to do reform. Shame on us."

President Barack Obama issued a statement hailing House passage of the bill. He said it would "establish the strongest-ever disclosure requirements for election-related spending by special interests." Obama acknowledged that the measure "is not perfect — I would have preferred that it include no exemptions. But it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending."

The bill blurred ideological lines. Government watchdog groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, organizations normally wary of special deals to garner votes, supported the Disclose Act, maintaining that the exemptions don't dilute the spirit or impact of the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied against the bill, both on free speech grounds.

" . . . Despite some elements that enhance participation in federal elections, we believe this bill fails to improve the integrity of our campaigns in any substantial way while significantly harming the speech and associational rights of Americans," ACLU officials said in a letter to lawmakers.

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