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McGehee: Even With NRA Fix, DISCLOSE Act Worth Voting For

An army of influential Washington, D.C., players is busy working the phones and making the rounds on Capitol Hill this week trying to scuttle the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175). Some groups, seeing that the National Rifle Association was successful in obtaining a carve-out, are seeking their own deals, while others are using the controversy around the “NRA fix” as a cover for their own opposition to the underlying goals of the bill.

[IMGCAP(1)]The question now facing Members of the House is whether the DISCLOSE Act is worth voting for now that the NRA fix has been added.

The answer is yes. Here’s why.

The DISCLOSE Act was drafted in response to the recent radical decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which turned a century of law on its head and allows corporations (and unions) to spend unlimited treasury funds to directly influence the outcome of federal elections.

The DISCLOSE bill responds to this startling and unfortunate decision by requiring corporations and unions that make these expenditures to disclose those expenditures in a meaningful and accurate fashion. It also ensures that the gap created by the Citizens United decision in the ban on foreign nationals from influencing U.S. elections is closed; it strengthens current rules (which are notoriously weak) governing coordination of activities with candidates and parties; and it enhances public disclosure of political expenditures made by corporations, unions, 527 organizations and 501(c) groups, especially transfers made to third-party organizations that, without these new provisions, would remain hidden from public disclosure.

These are all worthy and important changes to current statutes that the Citizens United decision has necessitated. The Campaign Legal Center supports these changes and believes the bill with the manager’s amendment is of vital importance to the health of our democracy.

Those claiming the bill has a “union exemption” are wrong. Unions have the same donor disclosure requirements as everyone else — including a threshold, so that only major donors are disclosed. They also are covered by the same disclaimer and “stand by your ad” provisions as everyone else. And, like all other government contractors, they are prohibited from making campaign expenditures if they receive funding from the government for services they provide to the government. They are not covered if their only role is to negotiate labor contracts with the government on behalf of their members, because serving as a negotiator for members has never been covered under the existing government contractor prohibition, which the DISCLOSE Act builds on.

As for the recently negotiated NRA fix, there are two points to consider.

One is that this exception is quite narrow. Thus, it does not become the loophole that swallows the law. Rather, in the case of the NRA, it is a long-established, nationwide group with a huge membership base that doesn’t serve as a conduit for corporate funding and is a well-known “brand.” When the NRA takes out an ad, we know what the organization is and what it stands for.

The second is pure necessity. According to the House leadership’s vote count, the fix was needed to ensure passage in the House. The NRA is just that powerful within the House and especially among the Blue Dog Democrats. Like it or not, that’s the reality.

The core provisions of the DISCLOSE Act are important enough to get this bill through the House and on to the Senate expeditiously where we hope it will pass this summer. Without the core provisions of the DISCLOSE Act in place, this fall the public will remain in the dark about millions of dollars being spent to determine who will lead this nation. And it will only get worse in 2012 when the occupancy of the White House is in play.

The DISCLOSE Act, even with the fix, is being mischaracterized by opponents. At its core, it is about ensuring that voters know who or what is behind the high-priced ad campaigns attacking or praising the candidates whose names will be on the ballot.

It’s time for the House to pass H.R. 5175 with the manager’s amendment. Further delay only serves to empower those who wish to conceal their big, influence-buying checks and political clout behind the political ads run by organizations with patriotic names and ulterior motives.

Meredith McGehee is the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center and has advocated for campaign finance reforms for more than 20 years. She also heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business.

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