Jun 24, 2010 5:17 PM by Melissa Canone
WASHINGTON (AP) - Four months before midterm elections, the
Democratic-controlled House approved new limitations on the
political activity of outside interest groups Thursday after
carving out exemptions that benefit the National Rifle Association
as well as labor unions and numerous federal contractors.
The vote was 219-206 on the legislation. Democrats trumpeted the
measure as a move to bring fuller disclosure to the world of
shadowy campaign ads and Republicans attacked it as an
unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
Passage sent the measure to the Senate, where Majority Leader
Harry Reid has pledged to seek its approval despite strong
Republican opposition that makes its prospects uncertain.
At the juncture of the First Amendment and partisan politics,
the measure produced an unlikely alignment among the very groups it
was intended to regulate.
Organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union
and Sierra Club on the left to the Chamber of Commerce and the
National Right to Life Committee on the right opposed it. The NRA
was officially neutral - and drew a jab from House Republican
Leader John Boehner of Ohio because of that.
The AFL-CIO took no position after bargaining hard for
undisclosed changes as the legislation made its way to the floor,
while Democracy 21, a group that seeks to limit the influence of
big money in politics, urged its enactment.
"These landmark provisions will add sunlight to our
campaigns," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who worked hard
to win votes among members of the Democratic rank and file unhappy
over the treatment given the National Rifle Association. "With
this bill, no longer will corporations be able to drown out the
voices of ordinary citizens."
But Boehner, responding for Republicans, said the Democrats'
true goal was to "use their majority here in the House to silence
their political opponents pure and simple, for just one election.
"Why does the Humane Society of America get to speak freely,
but not the National Farm Bureau? Why does AARP get protected under
this bill, but if you belong to 60 Plus - no, no, you've got to
comply with all this," he said.
Hours before the vote, Democrats meeting in private were shown a
pair of ads aimed at Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota last year
while Congress was debating health care legislation. The Chamber of
Commerce paid for one, while the seniors group 60-Plus was behind
the other. Neither group is currently required to disclose the
donors who paid for the commercial.
Under the measure, advanced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.,
nearly all organizations airing political ads independently of
candidates or the political parties would be required to disclose
their top donors and the amounts they paid. The group's CEO or
other top official would be required to appear on screen taking
responsibility for the commercial.
Under the measure, any business, union or other entity holding a
government contract worth more than $10 million would be banned
from a variety of political activity, as would firms in possession
of federal bailout funds and corporations in which foreigners own
more than a majority of voting shares.
Shortly before the final vote, Rep. Dennis Kucinich was
successful in adding a provision that banned political activity by
BP or any other business that holds a federal lease to drill for
oil off the Outer Continental Shelf.
The legislation was drafted in response to a
precedent-shattering Supreme Court ruling last winter that said
corporations and unions were free to spend their own funds on
television commercials, mass mailings to the general public and
other political activity that had been off-limits for decades.
The bill includes more stringent reporting requirements under
which the Federal Election Commission would post more donor
information on its website than is now available.
Corporations, labor unions and others engaging in certain types
of independent political activity would be required to report
donations, dues or other contributions from all donors who have
given $600 or more; the threshhold would be $1,000 for other types
of activity, generally those that do not directly advocate a
candidate's victory or defeat.
The struggle over the legislation was a case study in the power
of special interests.
As originally drafted, it would have required all outside groups
airing their own television commercials to disclose donors. Among
other organizations, the NRA objected, and the group's clout
quickly became evident two weeks ago when Democrats calculated
their own moderate members would oppose the measure as a result and
doom it to defeat.
Backpedaling, Democrats agreed to an exemption from the donor
disclosure requirement for any group that has been in existence for
a decade and has with at least 1 million members and dues payers in
all 50 states. Initially, aides said that would have allowed the
NRA and other groups to avoid disclosure. They later said some
organizations had overstated their membership rolls, and only the
gun owners organization and the AARP would have benefitted. The
provision provoked a backlash from liberals angry at having to vote
for a measure giving a long-time adversary preferential treatment.
Ultimately, the bill was redrafted to excuse groups with 500,000
or more members from the requirement to disclose donors.
Several Democratic officials said unions, also, sought changes
to the measure, although they refused to provide details.
Republicans pointed to numerous provisions, including one added
at the last minute that would permit the transfer of $50,000 or
less among any organization's affiliates without disclosure.
They also accused Democrats of seeking to help unions engaged in
certain political activity by exempting from disclosure any donor
of less than $600 a year, an amount above what most union workers
pay in annual dues.
The ban on political activity by federal contractors originally
was set to apply to those holding contracts greater that $50,000,
and that, too, would have affected the NRA. That was raised
initially to $7 million, a level that would allowed the group to
continue to do its contract work and engage in independent
As passed, the legislation bans political activity by holders of
federal contracts in excess of $10 million.