Critics cheer missed deadline on campaign finance legislation

House Democrats have handed ardent opponents of a new campaign finance bill an extra week to lobby against it.

Democratic sponsors of the measure led by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) had planned to pass it by Memorial Day, but when negotiations with Senate Democrats broke down over a massive tax/healthcare/jobs bill, leaders were forced to punt the vote until after the recess, Democratic aides said.

Opponents cheered the delay while supporters winced. The decision to push the vote off gives the bill’s aggressive opponents at least one more week to make their case and bend lawmakers’ ears about their complaints.

In recent days, Van Hollen and other Democratic co-sponsors were cautiously optimistic they had the votes to pass the bill, but watchdog groups who support it worry last-minute pushes by opponents could siphon off votes from members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

The White House-backed legislation, dubbed the Disclose Act, is a Democratic effort to limit the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision earlier this year. That ruling lifted restrictions on corporate and union spending from their treasury funds on political advertisements. Critics of the high court ruling warn it will produce an avalanche of corporate and union spending on political advertising this cycle, as well as help spawn a host of shadow groups whose funding could remain secret.

The Disclose Act attempts to force the groups to disclose exactly where the money for the ads is coming from by mandating that corporate and union officials, as well as their top donors, stand by their ads and disclose their identities in the ads, just as federal politicians must do.

"The bipartisan Disclose Act has broad support in the Democratic Caucus and with the American people. If not for the backup in the legislative calendar, we would have voted on it on Friday. We look forward to bringing up the bill when we return from the Memorial Day work period," said Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey.

Conservative and business groups already had begun a pre-vote 24-hour lobbying blitz against the bill late last week, sending a flurry of letters to lawmakers’ offices late Wednesday and Thursday, declaring dire warnings about the bill’s “chilling effect” on free speech and unequal treatment of corporations and unions.

The last-minute opposition included a letter from the National Rifle Association to a targeted group of members. The letter calls the Citizens United ruling a “vindication of free speech” and says the Disclose bill would amount to a violation of the First Amendment protections of citizens’ right to speak and “associate privately and anonymously” because it would force the NRA to disclose top donors in political advertisements and potentially require it to turn over membership and donor lists to the Federal Election Commission.

“This unnecessary and burdensome requirement would leave it in the hands of government officials to make a determination about the type and amount of speech that would trigger potential criminal penalties,” the NRA Executive Director Chris Cox wrote.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has opposed the bill since it was first discussed, also weighed in, warning members it would use the vote to grade members of Congress business-friendly record, a key gauge for determining which lawmakers to support and oppose.

“…The clear purpose of this legislation is irretrievably to upend First Amendment protections of political speech in the months leading up to an election,” the chamber wrote in its letter. “The protection of free speech rights are [sic] too important to the foundation of American democracy to be infringed upon.”

The National Right to Life Committee sent a four-page letter opposing the bill to lawmakers, while more than a 100 trade associations and local business groups from around the country sent yet another missive, calling Disclose a “direct attack on the rights of the business community and the role our organizations play in the national political dialogue.”

A chorus of watchdogs attempted to counter the onslaught of attacks with a letter of its own. The Campaign Legal Center joined with Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters and Public Citizen in defending the bill as simply “providing timely and effective disclosure of campaign-related expenditures” by unions, corporations, trade associations and non-profit advocacy groups.

“The Court’s overreaching and indefensible judicial activism in Citizens United was contrary to the positions taken by past presidents, past Congresses and the Supreme Court over the last 20 years, all of whom concluded that the corporate spending ban was necessary to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption,” they wrote. “At the same time, the Supreme Court in [the] decision, by an 8 to 1 vote, made very clear that it is constitutional and appropriate to require the disclosure of corporate and labor union spending to influence federal elections.”