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Democrats carve exception for NRA to salvage campaign law

WASHINGTON — Several open-government advocacy groups said Tuesday that they support a deal crafted by the Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives that would exempt the National Rifle Association and other groups from some provisions of a proposed campaign finance disclosure bill.

The bill was written to close the vacuum created last January by the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision that struck down decades-old law barring corporations and unions from directly supporting campaigns.

The bill would ban government contractors from contributing to campaigns, prevent federal TARP money recipients from using that money to influence elections, and prevent foreign nationals and countries from contributing to campaigns.

The measure also would require corporate chief executive officers to appear in political ads that their companies help pay for and say that he or she "approves this message."

While calling it distasteful, some open-government advocates said that the NRA exemption was the only way that Democrats could remove NRA opposition to the so-called DISCLOSE Act and get the bill to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week.

"The reality is that NRA controls a goodly number of members of Congress and they're not going to vote for a bill it's against," said Sarah Dufendach, the vice president for legislative affairs for Common Cause, a non-profit government watchdog group. "You have to balance what you get in the disclosure bill versus what the NRA gets. You don't want to kill a good bill because of one provision."

The NRA, in a statement, endorsed the deal.

"One June 14, 2010, Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives pledged that (the DISCLOSE Act) would be amended to exempt groups like the NRA that meet certain criteria, from its onerous restrictions on free political speech," the statement said. "As a result, and as long as that remains the case, the NRA will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill."

The NRA initially opposed the bill largely because it doesn't want to reveal its donor list.

Under the deal, organizations that have more than a million dues-paying members, are active in all 50 states, derive no more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations, and have existed for more than 10 years would be exempt from the disclosure requirements.

Five watchdog groups — Common Cause, Public Citizen, the Campaign Legal Center, the League of Women Voters and Democracy 21 — sent a one-paragraph letter to lawmakers on Tuesday urging them to vote for the bill.

"The exemption written for the NRA, which applies to AARP and the Humane Society, doesn't undercut the integrity of the bill itself," said Craig Holman, Public Citizen's government affairs lobbyist. "It was a political decision. We're uncomfortable with giving anyone any exemption. It continues to be a hard decision."

Not all open government groups support the deal. Lisa Rosenberg, government affairs consultant for the Sunlight Foundation, wrote that the deal epitomizes what's wrong with Washington.

"We are disheartened that some would forgive the exemption on the grounds that it is so narrow it won't open the floodgates for secret money in elections," she wrote on the group's website. "But the simple fact that the NRA could demand such an exception in a shadowy backroom deal demonstrates why we need more, not less, sunlight on the entire process . . . Where does the deal-making end and backbone begin?"


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