Four months before midterm elections, the Democratic-controlled House approved new limitations on the political activity of outside interest groups Thursday after carving out exemptions that benefit the National Rifle Association as well as labor unions and numerous federal contractors.
The vote was 219-206 on the legislation. Democrats trumpeted the measure as a move to bring fuller disclosure to the world of shadowy campaign ads and Republicans attacked it as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
Passage sent the measure to the Senate, where Majority Leader Harry Reid has pledged to seek its approval despite strong Republican opposition that makes its prospects uncertain.
At the juncture of the First Amendment and partisan politics, the measure produced an unlikely alignment among the very groups it was intended to regulate.
Organizations as diverse as the American Civil Liberties Union and Sierra Club on the left to the Chamber of Commerce and the National Right to Life Committee on the right opposed it. The NRA was officially neutral — and drew a jab from House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio because of that.
The AFL-CIO took no position after bargaining hard for undisclosed changes as the legislation made its way to the floor, while Democracy 21, a group that seeks to limit the influence of big money in politics, urged its enactment.
"These landmark provisions will add sunlight to our campaigns," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who worked hard to win votes among members of the Democratic rank and file unhappy over the treatment given the National Rifle Association. "With this bill, no longer will corporations be able to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."
But Boehner, responding for Republicans, said the Democrats' true goal was to "use their majority here in the House to silence their political opponents pure and simple, for just one election.
"Why does the Humane Society of America get to speak freely, but not the National Farm Bureau? Why does AARP get protected under this bill, but if you belong to 60 Plus — no, no, you've got to comply with all this," he said.
Hours before the vote, Democrats meeting in private were shown a pair of ads aimed at Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota last year while Congress was debating health care legislation. The Chamber of Commerce paid for one, while the seniors group 60-Plus was behind the other. Neither group is currently required to disclose the donors who paid for the commercial.
Under the measure, advanced by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., nearly all organizations airing political ads independently of candidates or the political parties would be required to disclose their top donors and the amounts they paid. The group's CEO or other top official would be required to appear on screen taking responsibility for the commercial.
Under the measure, any business, union or other entity holding a government contract worth more than $10 million would be banned from a variety of political activity, as would firms in possession of federal bailout funds and corporations in which foreigners own more than a majority of voting shares.
Shortly before the final vote, Rep. Dennis Kucinich was successful in adding a provision that banned political activity by BP or any other business that holds a federal lease to drill for oil off the Outer Continental Shelf.
The legislation was drafted in response to a precedent-shattering Supreme Court ruling last winter that said corporations and unions were free to spend their own funds on television commercials, mass mailings to the general public and other political activity that had been off-limits for decades.
The bill includes more stringent reporting requirements under which the Federal Election Commission would post more donor information on its website than is now available.
Corporations, labor unions and others engaging in certain types of independent political activity would be required to report donations, dues or other contributions from all donors who have given $600 or more; the threshhold would be $1,000 for other types of activity, generally those that do not directly advocate a candidate's victory or defeat.
The struggle over the legislation was a case study in the power of special interests.
As originally drafted, it would have required all outside groups airing their own television commercials to disclose donors. Among other organizations, the NRA objected, and the group's clout quickly became evident two weeks ago when Democrats calculated their own moderate members would oppose the measure as a result and doom it to defeat.
Backpedaling, Democrats agreed to an exemption from the donor disclosure requirement for any group that has been in existence for a decade and has with at least 1 million members and dues payers in all 50 states. Initially, aides said that would have allowed the NRA and other groups to avoid disclosure. They later said some organizations had overstated their membership rolls, and only the gun owners organization and the AARP would have benefitted. The provision provoked a backlash from liberals angry at having to vote for a measure giving a long-time adversary preferential treatment.
Ultimately, the bill was redrafted to excuse groups with 500,000 or more members from the requirement to disclose donors.
Several Democratic officials said unions, also, sought changes to the measure, although they refused to provide details.
Republicans pointed to numerous provisions, including one added at the last minute that would permit the transfer of $50,000 or less among any organization's affiliates without disclosure.
They also accused Democrats of seeking to help unions engaged in certain political activity by exempting from disclosure any donor of less than $600 a year, an amount above what most union workers pay in annual dues.
The ban on political activity by federal contractors originally was set to apply to those holding contracts greater that $50,000, and that, too, would have affected the NRA. That was raised initially to $7 million, a level that would allowed the group to continue to do its contract work and engage in independent political activity.
As passed, the legislation bans political activity by holders of federal contracts in excess of $10 million.