There have been a lot of ill considered articles following the heinous grade school shooting in Connecticut, and I'm afraid this article in the Huffington Post is no exception. The headline, "The Gun Lobby: Why The NRA Is The Baddest Force In Politics," more or less sets the tone. Here's how the piece begins:
WASHINGTON -- In the spring of 2010, Democrats began charting out their legislative response to a Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited spending by corporations on federal elections. The proposal would have forced CEOs to appear in the ads they bankrolled. It would have barred foreign companies and government contractors from spending on election activity. Most significantly, it would have required groups that purchased campaign ads to disclose their donors' identities.
Shortly upon unveiling the Disclose Act, however, lawmakers and congressional aides realized they had a potentially crippling problem. The National Rifle Association had alerted Blue Dog Democrats and the Republican House leadership that it would mobilize a campaign to kill the bill if the last provision wasn't dropped. The NRA claimed to have between 50 and 55 Democratic House members who would defect, a Democratic aide recalled.
In leadership meetings, top Democrats would ask whether the NRA's complaints had been dealt with. Soon, talks began between Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) -- the bill's authors -- and the NRA's executive director, Chris Cox, to find an accommodation.
The result was hardly inspired legislative thinking. The parties created a carve-out for the gun lobby, writing a provision exempting groups from donor disclosure if they were 10-plus years old, had a million members and received less than 15 percent of their funding from corporations.
It's undeniably true that the NRA is a powerful political lobby, but this article makes it seem like the NRA is so feared it gets its own special exemption from campaign finance laws. That is grossly misleading.
For one, the exemption for "dues-paying" organizations would not have been just for the NRA—for example, it would have applied to the AARP and Humane Society as well. For another, "dues-paying" organizations such as unions would also have been exempt from the legislation's disclosure requirements. Unions are the largest political spenders in the country—they spent in excess of $400 million on campaigns in 2008, and 12 of the 20 biggest political contributors over the last two decades have been unions. Conveniently, unions give nearly all their money to Democrats.
Broadening the DISCLOSE Act's exemptions for dues-paying organizations was a transparent attempt to make it appear as if Democrats weren't slipping in a carve-out exclusively for their biggest donors. Here's how Politico reported it at the time:
A Democratic amendment tucked into campaign finance legislation Wednesday night also drew fire from Republicans and their allies, who contend it gives special treatment to Democrat-allied labor unions. The language in question would exempt from disclosure requirements transfers of cash from dues-funded groups to their affiliates to pay for certain election ads. It was inserted into the bill by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Administration Committee and a big union backer.
Though unions sought the change because they thought an earlier version of the bill would have forced them to disclose granular information about nonpolitical functions, Brady spokesman Kyle Anderson said the change “applies to all membership, dues-based organizations.” And he blasted efforts to cast it as a union sweetheart deal, as “just another attempt by Republicans to grasp at technical straws because they can’t find a valid argument against the legislation that the American people will support.”
The DISCLOSE Act ultimately failed in the Senate. Democrats couldn't get enough votes for cloture, in large part because Republicans objected to how the Democratic legislation exempted unions from the bill's disclosure requirements.
So yes, the NRA is a powerful political lobby, but not as powerful as this article makes it seem. Further, if the NRA does have a lot of political clout, this is because the organization has millions of members who voluntarily pay dues to the organization to support its political activities.
By contrast, unions have an enormous amount of political pull, which stems from liberally spending campaign cash collected from workers who are legally required to pay union dues against their will. Yet, somehow the NRA is always singled out as "baddest force in politics" whereas reporters never seem to bother scrutinizing union lobbying efforts.