NRA shoots down campaign finance reform, disclosure
On a March morning in 2002, the ink of President George W. Bush's signature on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill hardly had a chance to dry before the attorneys for the National Rifle Association filed the paperwork for a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.
In fact, the NRA's lawyers were so quick on the draw that the group beat the law’s strongest congressional opponent, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to court. Because it filed first, the NRA had earned the naming rights to the high profile case. However, the NRA, which had backed McConnell, himself an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, with nearly $187,000 in campaign support over the years, agreed to give the Republican senator the lead position. The signature challenge to McCain-Feingold was known as McConnell v. FEC, but could just as easily have been called NRA v. FEC.
Best known for its fierce defense of the gun industry, its customers and a broad interpretation of the Second Amendment, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has also concerns itself with the First: namely, opposing limits on and disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures. "NRA believes that any restrictions on the political speech of Americans are unconstitutional," wrote the Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, in a 2010 statement on the group's website. After years of fighting to retain the ability to maximize its influence through campaign cash, along with its massive grassroots operation, the group is strongly positioned to fight proposals expected this week from Vice President Joe Biden's gun violence task force.
The NRA did not return a call for comment for this story.
On Capitol Hill, at the Federal Election Commission and in the courts, the NRA has deployed its resources to oppose campaign finance regulations and strong disclosure requirements. Given that massive political spending has been a key component to the group's strategy -more than $26 million over the years on campaigns and $27 million on lobbying, dwarfing its opposition -their interest in the issue is understandable. The NRA does not always bet on winners; in the last election, its return on investment was less than one percent. But its reach is deep within Congress, whether the issue is gun ownership or poltical influence.
Consider its double win on the DISCLOSE Act, a piece of legislation proposed in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to require nonprofit organizations influencing elections to provide the public with more information about their sources of funding. In 2010, the NRA fought for and won a “carve out” in the DISCLOSE Act that would have exempted it (and other organizations similarly situated) from making its top donors public. Ultimately, the legislation died on the Senate floor that September--the preferred outcome for the group.
The group’s agenda in campaign finance goes back decades, a review of FEC records shows. Starting in the late 1970s, when the Commission was in its infancy, the group has been party to and the subject of enforcement matters before the FEC - at least 16 cases. It also sought advisory opinions from the commission on two occasions. It has fought foes in the gun control movement and pushed the envelope on using corporate money - as opposed to PAC money, which is subject to contribution limits - in elections, which was largely prohibited before the 2010 Citizens United decision. Many of the NRA's dealings with the FEC tended to center on whether ads run or planned by the group violated rules on "express advocacy" calling for the election or defeat of candidates, issues that, in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, are no longer a concern.
"The NRA was one of the first groups, even before the Chamber of Commerce, that used PACs and independent expenditures to mount campaigns for and against people and to be aggressive relating to campaign finance laws," says Larry Noble, who served as an attorney at the FEC during those years, and who now is president and CEO of Americans for Campaign Reform, a campaign finance reform group.
For example, throughout the 1980s, the NRA tangled with Handgun Control Inc., the earlier name of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence, in dueling complaints filed with the FEC. In a series of cases, known as "matters under review," or MURs, the groups and their associated PACs alternately accused each other of violating rules on soliciting members for contributions. On two occasions they entered conciliation agreements, while the commission closed the rest of the complaints were closed without action.
The FEC raised its own cases against the NRA - the three went to litigation, one ending up all the way in the Supreme Court. All three cases stemmed from group's use of corporate funds -that is, those raised by NRA proper, which is a 501(c)4 social welfare organization - in campaign spending and of transfers of money between the group and its PAC, which until Citizens United was striclty prohibited by campaign finance law.
The first case was resolved by a court decree on April 27, 1983; the last reached the Court of Appeals on 2001, where some of the NRA's spending was found to have violated campaign finance laws.
By that time, following presidential fundraising scandals in 1996 and a hugely expensive presidential spending contest in 2000, debate was heating up in Congress over what would become the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as BCRA. At issue was whether Congress would act to ban "soft money" - unlimited contributions from individuals, labor unions and corporations to party committees supposedly for "party building" activities. Though election law barred parties from using soft money to influence federal campaigns, in practice it was often used to help specific campaigns. A second, related issue the widespread use by parties and outside groups of corporate and union funded issue ads that effectively amounted to direct support for a candidate.
The NRA was in the thick of the fray, running frequent alerts about the legislation and lobbying on the Hill. In July 2001, after the Senate had passed a version of BCRA, the group ran an article on its website titled "Campaign Finance: Silencing Freedom to Gain Power," showing a photo of a man with a gag with the slogan "McCain-Feingold" around his mouth.
"Campaign finance reform is not about big dollars influencing elections. It's not about crooked politicians and a tainted process. It's not about corruption. It is about who will control information to the electorate; with the big media and incumbent politicians having a total lock of speech, ideas, and political thought in America," it declared.
Meredith McGeehee, a longtime lobbyist for campaign finance reform recalled how the bill was nearly sunk in the House by an amendment tailored for the NRA sponsored by Rep. Charles Pickering, R-Miss., that would have prohibited the bill from applying to any advertisement that "consists of information or commentary about a person holding or seeking federal office on any matter pertaining to the Second Amendment."
"I remember standing outside the chamber one evening," says McGeehee, "and the biggest threat was the amendment...the vote count was awful." She said in the end it was Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., who managed to pull together the votes to defeat it. The final count was 209 to 219, with 21 Democrats supporting it, on February 13, 2002.
Later the NRA sent out a fax alert, urging supporters to contact their representatives and thank them for supporting the amendment and report their displeasure if they had not. The alert also said to see how representatives voted on "this anti-First Amendment bill" and to be sure to "communicate your sentiments accordingly to your Representative based on his vote on this anti-freedom measure."
The following month, the NRA filed its lawsuit against the new law. "We are proud to be the first plaintiff to formally ask the federal court to invalidate these new limits on the political speech of ordinary citizens because we believe that this law cannot be allowed to stand -not even for a moment," said the group's then vice president, Wayne LaPierre, in a statement.
BCRA largely survived the court challenge by its challengers. The NRA continued its opposition.
In 2004, LaPierre declared a legal opinion determined that the group's web-based news outlet, NRANews, which describes itself as "your first source on second amendment news," could act as a media outlet and therefore was exempted from the law's requirements regarding advertisements.
"...NRANews should be deemed a media company and therefore is entitled to distribute news stories, commentaries and editorials that both mention federal candidates and advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate. Under the relevant campaign finance laws, media companies are permitted to engage in such speech without limitation."
In 2009, the Supreme Court was considering the Citizens United case in which it would rule that unlimited corporate and union money could be spent on independent expenditures The NRA submitted an amicus brief in support. Much of the group's argument revolved around its status as a nonprofit and that such groups should be permitted to spend without limit in elections--the same issues that it had been grappling with for years with the FEC. When the Supreme Court decided the case, the NRA was full of praise.
"This ruling is a victory for anyone who believes that the First Amendment applies to each and every one of us," said LaPierre.
Following the Citizens United decision, the NRA turned its lobbying activity against the DISCLOSE Act, and won the carve out in the 2010 bill that later died in the Senate. The group opposed the bill's revival in 2012. Earlier this month, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Conn., introduced a new version of the legislation. While the NRA's focus has been on various bills introduced following the mass shooting of school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary school last December, opposing disclosure legislation is sure to retain a prominent place on its lobbying agenda.