WASHINGTON, June 21, 2010 -- If Congressional Democrats have their way, the names and faces behind some groups running political ad campaigns could soon become as familiar as the ads themselves when they hit airwaves this fall.
A pending piece of legislation known as the Disclose Act would require the heads of companies, unions and nonprofit groups to personally appear 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.
President Obama and Democrats see the measure as a response to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which removed limits on political spending by corporations, and a step towards fulfilling a promise to "rein in corporate influence" in elections.
But House Democrats, eager to pass the bill and avoid a fight with one of Washington's most powerful lobbies, have agreed to exempt from the new rules a small but highly influential group of organizations that most notably includes the NRA.
The compromise backfired badly late last week after groups on both sides of the aisle protested the NRA exemption, threatening to imperil passage of the legislation and its desired effect.
"The focus shouldn't be protecting one organization over another but rather protecting the U.S. Constitution," said Tom McClusky of the conservative Family Research Council. "The Second Amendment, Third Amendment, Fourth Amendment and so on mean nothing if not for the protections guaranteed in the First Amendment."
How the debate gets resolved -- and who would ultimately be subjected to the disclosure rules -- could have implications for Democrats in November at a time when many are eager to please their liberal base without raising the ire of powerful conservative groups like the NRA.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the bill's sponsor, attempted to soothe objectors by broadening the exemption to include groups with more than 500,000 members instead of an earlier 1 million member threshold.
But critics, particularly smaller progressive groups, including the Sierra Club, say any exemptions are undemocratic and create an unlevel playing field.
"It is inappropriate and inequitable to create a two-tiered system of campaign finance laws and First Amendment protections, one for the most powerful and influential and another for everyone else," a group of 45 liberal nonprofits wrote in a letter last week to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
"There is no legitimate justification for privileging the speech of large entities, or of reducing the burdens of compliance for the biggest organizations yet retaining them for the smallest."
Without accommodations for the NRA and other powerful lobbying groups, however, Democrats' hopes to achieve new campaign finance reform legislation could be further complicated and make them more politically vulnerable come November.
"Democrats in marginal districts are more at risk" if a bill is not passed, said William LeoGrande of the American University School of Public Affairs. "There is an advantage in having a disclosure act that will prevent corporations and nonprofits from hiding behind front groups and attacking them."
LeoGrande said any bill to pass the House would also almost certainly have loopholes -- especially for the NRA.
"Just about everybody is afraid of the NRA because they are so powerful and so well funded," he said. The group spent $23 million lobbying Congress in 2008, according to its most recent financial disclosure.
Van Hollen has said he is confident a deal can be reached on the legislation and could come soon. But any measure to pass the House still faces stiff opposition from Senate Republicans, who largely oppose restrictions on campaign finance.