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NRL News
Page 3
June 2010
Volume 37
Issue 8-9

Senate Republicans Hold Back Bill That
Would Restrict Free Speech About Federal Politicians

WASHINGTON (August 23, 2010)–Republicans in the U.S. Senate, voting as a bloc, have halted–temporarily, at least–a drive by President Obama and congressional Democratic leaders to place extensive new legal restrictions on the ability of corporations to communicate with the public about the actions of federal lawmakers.

President Obama has made enactment of the so-called “DISCLOSE Act” one of his top legislative priorities for the year. He and other Democratic leaders spent months pushing hard to enact the bill in time to curb political communications that might be sponsored by corporations–including issue-oriented corporations such as National Right to Life–before the November 2 congressional elections.

NRLC is strongly opposed to the bill, viewing it as a blatant political attack on the constitutional rights of the organization and of its members and donors.

The legislation was crafted in response to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, handed down on January 21, 2010. In that case, the Supreme Court invalidated federal laws and regulations that had prevented an incorporated group called Citizens United from buying TV ads to promote a movie critical of Hillary Clinton while she was running for president. By a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations to spend money on ads or other communications that criticize or praise those who hold or seek federal office.

The White House and top congressional Democrats sharply criticized the decision. In his January 27 State of the Union address, which was attended by six Supreme Court justices, President Obama denounced the ruling, saying that it would “open the floodgates for special interests–including foreign corporations–to spend without limit in our elections. . . . And I’d urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems.”

Democratic lawmakers then moved rapidly to craft legislation that is intended to make it as difficult as possible for corporations (including nonprofit, issue-oriented corporations such as NRLC) to spend money to communicate with the public about the actions of federal officeholders, while leaving considerably more latitude for labor unions–generally allies of the dominant liberal wing of the Democrats–to take advantage of the Court’s ruling. They made clear their determination to try to put the new restrictions into effect as quickly as possible, in order to mute outside organizations as much as possible before the November elections.

The legislation, dubbed the “DISCLOSE Act,” was introduced in April by Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic Party chiefly responsible for helping elect Democrats to the House.

On June 24, the House of Representatives passed its version of the bill (H.R. 5175) by a vote of 219 to 206. It was supported by 217 out of 253 voting Democrats, and opposed by 170 out of 172 voting Republicans. Some of the 36 Democrats who voted against the bill were actually in support of its major purposes, but they objected to a provision that in effect exempted the National Rifle Association (NRA) from many of the burdens imposed by the bill. Democratic leaders reluctantly arranged for this “NRA carve out” to be added to the bill in committee, in order to diminish the amount of opposition to the overall measure on the House floor.

Following the House vote, NRLC and NRLC affiliates focused their attention on the Senate, to which NRLC’s strong objections were conveyed in detail in a letter dated July 23, signed by Executive Director David N. O’Steen, Ph.D., and Legislative Director Douglas Johnson:

There is very little in this bill, despite the pretenses [that it merely advances “disclosure”], that is actually intended to provide useful or necessary information to the public,” the letter said. “The overriding purpose is precisely the opposite: To discourage, as much as possible, disfavored groups (such as NRLC) from communicating about officeholders, by exposing citizens who support such efforts to harassment and intimidation, and by smothering organizations in layer on layer of record keeping and reporting requirements, all backed by the threat of civil and criminal sanctions.”

Enactment of the DISCLOSE Act would not be a curb on corruption, but itself a type of corruption–a corruption of the lawmaking power, by which incumbent lawmakers employ the threat of criminal sanctions, among other deterrents, to reduce the amount of private speech regarding the actions of the lawmakers themselves,” the letter charged.

On July 27, Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nv.) made an attempt to force the bill to the Senate floor through use of a “cloture petition,” which requires 60 votes for approval. Since the Republicans currently hold 41 Senate seats, this meant that Reid needed at least one Republican vote to take the bill up. He did not get it–the Republicans voted as a bloc against the motion. (The roll call appears on page 23 of this edition.)

Reid was forced to set the matter aside and turn to other business, but according to press reports, he is likely to try again in September. On August 21, President Obama devoted a portion of his weekly radio address to attacking the Republicans for blocking the bill.

Special-interest groups that advocate extensive restrictions on political speech have indicated that they may make a last-ditch attempt to pick up a Republican vote by delaying the effective date of the bill until next year.

The negotiation that we hope will be able to break the filibuster is the mere fact that this will no longer apply to the 2010 elections,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the advocacy group “Public Citizen,” told Congress Daily (August 16).

TAKE ACTION NOW

The Senate is likely to take another vote on whether to take up the “DISCLOSE Act” some time during September. Please immediately contact the offices of your two U.S. senators. First, check how each of your senators voted on the DISCLOSE Act on July 27, 2010 (see page 23 of this issue). For those who voted against taking up the bill, send a message along these lines: “I commend you for your July 27 vote against taking up the so-called ‘DISCLOSE Act’ (S. 3628). I am strongly opposed to incumbent politicians trying to restrict the free speech of organizations about the elected officials who are supposed to represent us. Please continue to oppose this legislation, which is an attack on the First Amendment rights of your constituents and the organizations that they choose to support.”

If your senator voted in favor of taking up the bill on July 27, your message should be along these lines: “I strongly object to your July 27 vote in favor of taking up the so-called ‘DISCLOSE Act’ (S. 3628). I am strongly opposed to incumbent politicians trying to restrict the free speech of organizations about the elected officials who are supposed to represent us. I regard this legislation as an attack on the First Amendment rights of your constituents and the organizations that they choose to support, and I urge you to withhold your support on any future procedural or direct votes on this bill.”

You must rely on telephone, e-mail, and faxes–there is not time for U.S. mail.

Here is how you can reach them:

* Call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard, 202-224-3121, and ask to be put through to the office of one of your U.S. senators. If you do not know who represents you, simply tell the operator the name of your state of residence.

* You can also send your senators e-mail messages against this legislation through the NRLC website Legislative Action Center at http://www.capwiz.com/nrlc/home/

* You can also express your opinions by calling lawmakers’ district offices, and/or by sending them letters by fax. The various phone and fax numbers for most members of Congress are available through the NRLC website Legislative Action Center at http://www.capwiz.com/nrlc/dbq/officials/

(To see how one of your representatives has voted in the past on a range of key pro-life issues, call up his or her profile, then click on the “Votes” tab.)

Remember, it just takes a few minutes to send an appropriate message to both of your senators, using the easy-to-use tools on the Legislative Action Center.

Please act quickly!