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Transparency at Risk: The DISCLOSE Act is Pulled Again for Further Negotiations

It has been a long, long haul for Congress to fashion a legislative response to the devastating Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which unleashed a flood of unlimited corporate money in elections. Finally, we could almost see the horizon for a legislative response.

After months of prolonged negotiations among congressional leaders and civic groups, they finally produced the DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175), legislation designed largely to require full transparency of who is funding campaign ads by corporations, unions and advocacy groups. The House Administration held two hearings in two weeks on the DISCLOSE Act, marked it up in near-final form, and sent it to the House Rules Committee on Thursday to set the terms of the floor debate, which was expected today (Friday).

Thirty minutes before the Rules Committee was scheduled to hold its hearing, I received notice from a colleague outside the Rules Committee room that a sign has been posted on the door:

“Committee Meeting Postponed until Further Notice.”

Turns out we are nowhere near the horizon.

A recent concerted effort to derail the transparency legislation came from the NRA, which fiercely supports the Citizens United decision, backed in part by a few other non-profit groups, such as the Alliance for Justice.

The NRA does not want to disclose its major donors funding their campaign ads. The NRA also does not like the DISCLOSE Act’s disclaimer provision requiring TV campaign ads to list the top five donors for the ads. “There is no legitimate reason to include the NRA in H.R. 5175’s overly burdensome disclosure and reporting requirements,” wrote the NRA to congressional leaders.

The NRA, like most anti-reform advocates, had long argued that all restrictions on money in politics should be eliminated and replaced with full disclosure. The anti-reform mantra was simple: “just have transparency.”

But I suspected all along they really did not believe that, either. Now that the anti-reformers have a Supreme Court that appears intent on erasing a century’s worth of reasonable restrictions on money in politics, the anti-reformers are now attacking disclosure as “too burdensome” and “chilling free speech.”

Public Citizen joined with several other organizations calling upon congressional leaders not to back-peddle, and to pass the strongest DISCLOSE Act possible. In our May 27th letter, we wrote to Congress: “Our organizations urge you to vote for the Van Hollen-Castle legislation to require timely and effective disclosure by corporations, labor unions, trade associations and non-profit advocacy groups of their campaign-related expenditures and the funders of these expenditures.”

But the NRA has a huge campaign budget; we do not. The NRA is ready to target lawmakers in the 2010 elections who do not vote as the NRA wishes. Clearly, this has made congressional leaders nervous.

Congressional leaders have suggested they will revisit the DISCLOSE Act following the Memorial Day recess – all the while resuming further negotiations with the NRA and other advocacy groups who want to rein in the disclosure requirements.

Transparency is at grave risk.

Craig Holman is the government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.