The NRA and transparency in advertising

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

At the last minute, House sponsors of a bill designed to shed light on who is funding political advertisements have eliminated a serious objection to the legislation: that it provided special treatment for the National Rifle Association. Now the House should pass the bill.

Known as the DISCLOSE Act, the legislation is a response to a wrongheaded Supreme Court decision that came down in January allowing corporations to use their treasury funds to sponsor election-related ads. The bill would require corporations, unions, advocacy groups and some nonprofits to disclose the names of their top donors. Also, the top official of those organizations would have to appear in each advertisement and say that he had approved it.

The bill seemed headed for easy enactment until the National Rifle Association objected to it. Worried that the giant gun lobbying organization could kill the bill, supporters agreed to an exemption. They added language sparing from disclosure any organization meeting criteria that just happened to describe the NRA, including having more than 1 million members and relying on corporations for 15 percent or less of its contributions. (The NRA would still have to include in its ads a disclaimer from its top official.)

The amendment represented a concession to a special interest group of historic proportions. Some supporters of disclosure swallowed hard and endorsed the NRA amendment; others rebelled at the thought of kowtowing to such a notoriously influential lobby. Reacting to the criticism, sponsors of the amendment have now moved to exempt more nonprofits. In the latest version, any organization with more than 500,000 members would be exempt.

We would have preferred the sponsors to have eliminated the inconsistency altogether by including the NRA rather than excluding other nonprofits. We don't see any good reason why big not-for-profits should be exempted while small ones are required to meet the new disclosure requirements. Still, the bill satisfies the original primary objective of the DISCLOSE Act: to make it clear to viewers when and which corporations and unions are paying for the political advertising they're watching. It also would strengthen rules against coordination between candidates and the sponsors of independent ads. And it would ban political advertising by some government contractors and companies in which a foreign national owns 20% or more of a firm.

Even with its exceptions and inconsistencies, the House bill would empower voters by allowing them to assess - and in some cases dismiss - political appeals based on the vested interests of unions, corporations and wealthy individuals. And the NRA has been denied a special break.

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