Wrangling over DISCLOSE Act Slows Bill Down, but Deal May Be Near in House

Some members of Congress have started to explore exempting certain nonprofits from the DISCLOSE Act, the bill developed by Democrats to respond to the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. While some nonprofits are concerned about donor disclosure requirements in the bill, other groups are concerned that exemptions or changes to the bill would render the legislation ineffective. These organizations worry that without strong disclosure requirements, the bill would allow political ads sponsored by anonymous sources to flood the airwaves at election time.

A few nonprofits, mostly those supporting the legislation, have been playing a key role in negotiations concerning development of the DISCLOSE Act (the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act), federal legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) to blunt the impacts of the Citizens United decision. In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions may now directly and expressly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates for federal office through independent expenditures paid for by general funds.

Other groups, such as the AFL-CIO and the National Rifle Association (NRA), a 501(c)(4) organization, have raised concerns about the legislation. Responding to the NRA, Rep. Heath Shuler (D-NC), a "gun rights advocate and a co-sponsor of the package, has drafted a change that would exempt the gun lobby – and all other groups organized under 501(c)(4) of the tax code – from the disclosure requirements in the measure," according to Roll Call.

Shuler proposed the amendment because "the gun lobby has objected to the bill’s provision requiring a group to identify its top donors in its political ads, charging it would force the group to turn its membership list over the government," Roll Call noted.

At least some of what Shuler wants has reportedly been wrapped into a manager's amendment by House leadership, though the official language of the proposal was not available at press time. According to Politico, "The proposal would exempt organizations that have more than 1 million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations." This has been confirmed to OMB Watch by sources who have reviewed the manager's amendment. Citing unnamed Democratic sources, Politico indicates that the NRA may be the only organization that qualifies under the criteria. In a press statement issued June 15, the NRA said that if the manager's amendment is included in the bill, the group "will not be involved in final consideration of the House bill."

Far more hostile is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is threatening to "score" the bill. The threat poses a big dilemma for some Democrats who are vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections and who do not want to be listed as supporting a bill that the Chamber opposes.

The National Right to Life Committee, which opposes the DISCLOSE Act, also sent a letter to lawmakers informing them that it would use their vote on the legislation in evaluating their records.

Other nonprofits favor disclosure requirements but do not want them to be overly broad. Abby Levine, deputy director of advocacy for the Alliance for Justice (AFJ), told the Washington Independent that AFJ is "in favor of meaningful disclosure" and that the group wants "the relevant information without casting too wide a net."

Lisa Gilbert, U.S. Public Interest Research Group's (U.S. PIRG) democracy advocate, told the Washington Independent, "The thing about this bill is that there is disclosure that wasn’t required before of all entities' in the politically active tax-exempt world. These are things people aren’t accustomed to doing."

Other nonprofits support the DISCLOSE Act in its original form, are strongly opposed to Shuler's original (c)(4) exemption, and are seeking to narrow the exemption. According to a press release from the Campaign Legal Center, the group joined Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, and Public Citizen in a letter to House members asking them to vote for the DISCLOSE Act.

In the letter, the groups wrote, "The Supreme Court stated in Citizens United that disclosure and disclaimer requirements 'do not prevent anyone from speaking,' and disclosure 'permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way.'" They also urged House Members to "oppose any efforts to undermine or weaken the provisions in the legislation."

Nan Aron, president of AFJ, came out strongly against the manager's amendment version of the (c)(4) exemption. According to CQ Politics, Aron said, "This outrageous attempt to garner support for the bill does nothing more than make the already powerful even more powerful and undermines both the stated purpose of the legislation and fundamental Constitutional principles."

During the last week of May, just before the House Rules Committee was set to consider the DISCLOSE Act, the committee session was canceled. Some have blamed the lobbying efforts of groups opposed to the bill for disrupting the committee's schedule. Though a House deal may nevertheless be near, the legislation faces a tough road in the Senate, and the longer the bill is delayed, the less likely it will pass in time to affect the 2010 midterm elections.

Editor's Note: Due to the rapidly evolving nature of the DISCLOSE Act, we urge readers to visit The Fine Print for breaking news and changes that may have occurred after press time.

back to Blog