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Fred Wertheimer: “The NRA has veto power in the House of Representatives.”

I just got off a conference call about the DISCLOSE Act, the legislative response to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, with lead sponsor Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer and Meredith McGehee from the Campaign Legal Center. The DISCLOSE Act, which could get a vote in the House next week, has generated some controversy of late because of an exemption, mainly for the benefit of the NRA, from some disclosure requirements. And supporters on this call were unabashed, bluntly stating that the legislation could not pass the House without the exemption. Wertheimer even went so far to say that “The NRA has veto power in the House of Representatives.”

We did get some more details on the nature of the exemption, which is somewhat smaller than I at first envisioned. Mainly it’s about donor disclosure. The qualifying organizations, those which have large numbers of citizen donors and get less than 15% of their funds from corporations, would still have to identify specific campaign spending, as well as “stand by their ad.” When I asked Rep. Van Hollen if Wayne LaPierre would have to appear at the end of every NRA communication and say “I’m Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association and I approve this message,” he said “Yes.” What the NRA and other qualifying organizations – the AARP and the Humane Society, possibly others – would not have to do is state publicly who their donors are.

Van Hollen justified the exemption this way: he said that Rep. Heath Shuler originally offered an amendment which would have carved out all c(4) organizations. These are usually the form that shell groups run by corporate entities (“Americans for America”) take when running ads. “We worked with our members to limit dramatically the scope of that amendment,” Van Hollen said. He added that groups like the NRA aren’t trying to fool the voter about who they are – indeed, they brag about it. Van Hollen said that ultimately, the exempted groups would still be more constrained than they would be without the bill, because they cannot spend corporate money they get on campaign communications (though money is fungible), and not violate the limits for exemption qualification.

Basically, Democratic members “expressed serious concerns” and exemptions had to be given, in the view of supporters. McGehee said it was “done for the vote count and to pass it in the House,” and that the good outweighs the bad. That’s when Wertheimer made his statement, that we shouldn’t scrap the bill just because “the NRA has veto power in the House of Representatives.” It’s not like this wasn’t known already, but to hear it in such stark terms was a bit jarring.

I asked Wertheimer if the bill can pass the Senate with the exemption intact. Dianne Feinstein, a gun control advocate, came out and blasted the NRA deal today, and if she vowed to vote against the bill passage would become difficult. “We won’t know that until the bill gets over to the Senate,” Wertheimer said, in response to whether it can pass. “The challenge will be to get at least one GOP Senator… I would say that one of the Citizens United provisions ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court was written by Sen. Snowe, and that Sens. Snowe and Collins have been consistent supporters on campaign finance reform.” That didn’t totally answer the question of how to deal with a potential revolt from Feinstein and other gun control advocates.

Clearly the White House is on board, with Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer blogging about the support from good government groups like Democracy 21 and others. Wertheimer has been heavily involved in the crafting of the bill, so I don’t know if it means anything that he supports it, but it certainly shows you where the White House is on the subject.

Liberals in the House are similarly outraged by the exemption – conservatives are too, but they’d be outraged by a Democrat calling the sky blue. Mike Quigley (D-IL) has vowed to vote against any bill with the exemption, and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), a serious gun control advocate, may join him.

Van Hollen dismissed the charge being made that exempting the NRA and a couple other large groups could be found unconstitutional. He said that the Citizens United decisions “left Congress with lots of flexibility,” and he believed that the Court would accept different disclosure requirements. As to why unions, which also have large numbers of members and don’t take a lot of corporate money, weren’t exempted, Wertheimer said that the goal has been to claim a very narrow exemption. I guess unions don’t have veto power in the House of Representatives.

On a brighter note, Van Hollen did say that the bill would not cover the Internet or websites, as has been feared, and that changes have been made “to make that absolutely clear.” There’s talk of an amendment to extend the “stand by your ad” provision to Internet communications (imagine a 10-word Google ad with a disclaimer), but Van Hollen said that he would not support such a provision.

The bill would have to pass both houses of Congress and be signed by the President before the August recess to have an impact on the midterm elections.

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David Dayen

David Dayen