House Dems Preparing Thursday DISCLOSE Act Vote to Muzzle Pro-life, Pro-family Groups

Delayed, but not undaunted, the leadership of the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress may force a Thursday vote on a new campaign finance bill, the Orwellian-named “Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections (DISCLOSE) Act” that has pro-life, pro-family groups, and even the ACLU crying foul. Critics say the measure will have a chilling effect on political free speech, especially with mid-term elections just around the corner.

Late Wednesday afternoon, National Right to Life Legislative Director Douglas Johnson told that the House Rules Committee was meeting at that moment to make the DISCLOSE Act (HR 5175) ready for a full vote.

The bill forces many organizations to comply with what pro-life groups call “onerous” reporting requirements. These would disclose the donors and members of their organizations, and frustrate the ability of grassroots entities to communicate effectively about public policy.

Johnson told LSN that the vote “could be anytime during the day,” but that Democratic leadership “could cancel if they feel that anything is going in the wrong direction.”

A few weeks ago, the bill seemed dead, but Democrats brought it back after striking a deal Monday that would exempt the powerful National Rifle Association from the requirements of the bill in exchange for their neutrality. A vote was anticipated for last week as well, but Congress went home early for the weekend after a scheduling change.

The NRA deal – since modified to cover organizations such as the Sierra Club – exempts 501(c)4 groups from having to report their donors if they have at least 500,000 members, over 10 years of existence, chapters in all 50 states, and receive no more than 15 percent of total contributions from corporations. The NRA has over 4 million members; the environmentalist Sierra Club has 750,000 members.

The deal leaves smaller and more numerous grassroots organizations, in particular the pro-life, pro-family movement and the decentralized conservative “Tea Party” movement, out in the cold.

Other affected entities will likely include vocal liberal and conservative groups that communicate through the internet. While traditional media organizations like newspapers and television stations are exempt from the bill, bloggers, the vanguard of the “new media,” are not.

Both the White House and House Speaker Pelosi, Johnson revealed, have been heavily involved in the process.

He also noted with irony that the “author of the anti-influence bill,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, reportedly met with 50 members of his caucus – individually – over the weekend. “Now this is the guy who hands out the bucks for their campaigns,” he said.

“I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that,” said Johnson. “But the fact that they chose him to be the guy that carries this bill is just one more illustration of what it is about: this bill is nothing but a power grab to seek pure political advantage for the dominant faction of the majority party.”

Under the bill, all groups subject to the law’s requirements would have to list all donors of $600 or more with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Groups must also post a hyperlink on their website to the FEC, where a list of the names of their donors can be accessed.

Furthermore, every time an organization runs a campaign ad, its CEO must appear in the ad and state twice his name and the organization’s name. The top five funders of the organization behind the ad – even if they had nothing to do with the ad’s funding – must also have their names listed in the ad.

In addition, the most “significant” donor to the organization must list his name, rank, and organization 3 times in the ad. Critics of the bill say that the disclaimers effectively consume valuable air time bought by these groups that would otherwise be used to inform voters about a candidate’s record.

The public disclosure of donors, pro-life and pro-family groups fear, would make those individuals vulnerable to various forms of political reprisal, as happened in California over Proposition 8, and discourage people from participating in the political process.

Johnson indicated that the bill’s passage was far from certain. “If they succeed in muscling it through the House, it is still very much a jump ball in the Senate,” he said.

Senator Mitch McConnell has signalled that Republicans would very strongly oppose the measure. While no Senate Democrats have come out opposing it, ten of their number refused to co-sponsor the legislation (S 3295), sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), meaning some might join a GOP filibuster.

Once passed by the House and Senate and signed into law by President Barack Obama, the act would take effect in 30 days, even if the Federal Elections Commission has not yet crafted new guidelines – just in time for the mid-term elections in November.

Both H.R. 5175, and its Senate companion legislation, both contain a “severability clause” that will keep parts of the bill alive, if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down any section of the bill.

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