WaPo Holds Nose, Accepts NRA-approved Bill Regulating Issue Advocacy Ads

June 18th, 2010 5:45 PM

How committed is the Washington Post to its crusade to see Congress abridge free speech under the guise of "campaign finance reform"? So much that it's willing to be a political bedfellow with the National Rifle Association, a group it detests for its persistent advocacy of Americans' Second Amendment liberties.

In a June 17 editorial, the Post voiced its support behind a bill that Democrats and some liberal Republicans have been cobbling together since the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the McCain-Feingold bill earlier this year. But the bill itself contains language that was tailor-made to carve out an exemption for the National Rifle Association. That exemption was included, it seems, to get the NRA to back down from opposing the bill and hence to prevent it from throwing the ire of its grassroots backers into the mix.

While there are both leftists and conservatives angry about this unholy alliance for wildly different reasons, the Post defended its support of the bill with its typical sanctimonious language about battling "shadowy" interests:

As the price of not opposing the measure, which would have doomed it, the NRA won an exemption from the proposal's donor disclosure requirements. Most nonprofit groups that conduct more than $10,000 of campaign-related activities would have to disclose the identities of donors; the groups can set up separate political accounts so that only supporters contributing to the political advertising would be listed. The NRA amendment would exempt any group that (a) is at least 10 years old, (b) has 1 million annual dues-paying members, (c) has operations in all 50 states and (d) receives less than 15 percent of its funding from corporations or labor unions. Guess how many groups would qualify? The NRA and perhaps the Humane Society and the AARP. Smaller nonprofit groups would have to play by the new disclosure rules.

It's bad policy to treat reasonably similar groups so differently. Why exempt the NRA but require the Sierra Club or the NAACP to report their donors for campaign-related causes? There is no good answer except for the matter of political muscle. But it's also true that well-established, member-supported organizations are not likely to be conduits for the kind of secret special-interest funding, whether from corporations, labor unions or wealthy individuals, that the new disclosure rules are designed to root out.

The question facing House members is whether some disclosure of political spending -- a good deal more disclosure, in fact -- is better than none. We think it is. Under existing rules, those who want to spend money to influence campaigns without revealing their identities can operate through nonprofit organizations or trade associations. The House measure would require these groups to reveal their donors, just as so-called 527 organizations were called on to report contributors after they emerged as important, but shadowy, political players. For those who believe that disclosure is the best defense against corrupting the political process, this new reporting is crucial. Exempting the NRA is obnoxious, but the alternative is even worse.

To its credit, the Post also included on the June 17 op-ed page a scathing condemnation of the NRA's craven move by NRA board of director member Cleta Mitchell. Mitchell capably pointed out that the "cynical decision" by House Democrats to accept the NRA Amendment to so-called DISCLOSE Act (H.R. 5175) just showed that the real purpose of the bill is to curb and practically "license" political speech rather than preventing corruption of public policy-making:

In Citizens United, the court held that the First Amendment doesn't permit Congress to treat different corporations differently; that the protections afforded political speech arise from the Constitution, not Congress. Otherwise, it would be tantamount to a congressional power to license the speech of some while denying it to others.

The NRA carve-out is a clear example of a congressional speech license.

The ostensible purpose of the legislation is benign "disclosure," upheld in Citizens United as permissible under the First Amendment. Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia has expressed skepticism about the constitutional infirmity of disclosure requirements in another case argued this term; Scalia intoned in oral argument that "running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage."

That's true. Indeed, the law upheld in Citizens United requires all donors to candidate-related expenditures to be publicly disclosed to the FEC in a timely manner.

But the Disclose Act isn't really intended to elicit information not currently required by law. The act serves notice on certain speakers that their involvement in the political process will exact a high price of regulation, penalty and notoriety, using disclosure and reporting as a subterfuge to chill their political speech and association.

It is only disclosure, say the authors. And box-cutters are only handy household tools . . . until they are used by terrorists to crash airplanes.

This is not just "disclosure." It is a scheme hatched by political insiders to eradicate disfavored speech. There is no room under the First Amendment for Congress to make deals on political speech, whether with the NRA or anyone else.