Four months before the midterm elections, House Democrats today approved new limits on corporations and interest groups in political campaigns, while exempting some of the most powerful organizations from the new rules.
The so-called Disclose Act requires the heads of companies, unions and nonprofit groups to appear personally in any sponsored political ads and endorse the message. It would also require them to reveal the names of the top five donors who helped foot the advertising bill.
Foreign companies and those that hold lucrative U.S. government contracts or that have benefitted from federal bailouts would be banned from engaging in any independent political activity.
But the new guidelines -- which Democrats have sought in response to a Supreme Court decision removing limits on political spending by corporations -- do not apply to some interest groups such as the NRA and AARP, among others.
Critics have decried the double standard as a "backroom deal" that violates a select group of individuals' rights to freedom of speech and gives favorable treatment to others. Supporters of the measure say the exemptions were essential to get the bill passed and avoid a fight with the powerful gun lobby.
President Obama today said the Act will "control the flood of special interest money into our elections" and "give the American public the right to see exactly who is spending money in an attempt to influence campaigns for public office."
"I would have preferred that it include no exemptions," he said, acknowledging controversy over the bill. "But it mandates unprecedented transparency in campaign spending, and it ensures that corporations who spend money on American elections are accountable first and foremost to the American people."
Any group in existence for more than 10 years, having at least 500,000 dues-paying members from across the 50 states, and not receiving more than 15 percent of their funds from corporations does not have to follow the new restrictions.
"The purpose of this bill, plain and simple, is to allow Democrats to use their majority in this house to silence their political opponents," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"This bill would muzzle small businesses but protect labor unions. It allows the Humane Society to speak freely, but not the Farm Bureau. It would protect the AARP's rights, but not 60-Plus. And lastly it would protect the National Rifle Association but not the National Right to Life," he said.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi praised passage of the bill as an affirmation of the idea that "the right to vote is afforded to the people, not the special interests."
"With this bill, no longer will corporations be able to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens," she said.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Republicans have promised stiff opposition to the measure and united with progressive interest groups, who would not be exempt from the new rules.
"Democrats have done a unique thing here: they've united the left and the right -- in opposition to the effort takes away political speech from some, and enhances it for others," Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said from the Senate floor.