Timothy P. Carney: NRA isn't the villain in the free-speech fight

Congressional Democrats, to avert a clash with the National Rifle Association, have crafted a blatantly unfair amendment to an already cynical and probably unconstitutional bill regulating political discourse. The amendment, crafted by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., exempts a handful of the most powerful lobbies — including the NRA — from proposed burdensome disclosure requirements.

It's a shameful moment for the House of Representatives — especially the Democratic majority, and particularly Van Hollen. On the right, though, the ire is mostly aimed at the NRA for agreeing to drop its opposition to the bill because of the carveout.

But the facts paint an ambiguous picture as far as the NRA's culpability.

The NRA's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, on May 26 wrote every House member, attacking the DISCLOSE Act for creating “a series of Byzantine disclosure requirements that have the obvious effect of intimidating speech.”

Cox wrote, “there is no legitimate reason to include the NRA” in the bill's reporting and disclosure rules. Democrats say the bill is about curbing the political influence of corporations, which sometimes form nonprofit front groups to run issue ads. This bill aims to expose the real money behind such ads. The NRA, however, doesn't hide behind front groups.

The NRA's objection derailed the bill just before it was expected to pass.

Rep. Heath Shuler, a pro-gun Democrat from a conservative North Carolina district, responded with a proposal to exempt membership-based nonprofits from the bill. This would protect the NRA, Human Rights Campaign, Americans for Tax Reform, and many other groups.

Apparently, for Democratic leadership, that defeated the purpose. Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote his own amendment, exempting only the largest membership groups. It was a carve-out for the NRA.

So the NRA lobbyists were now faced with a bill that neither regulated guns nor regulated the NRA. Just as the NRA doesn't take a position on cap-and-trade measures or abortion bills, it decided it wouldn't take a position on the DISCLOSE Act.

The right exploded in anger. Other nonprofits felt abandoned. Some NRA board members felt betrayed. The conservative rank-and-file felt an ally had behaved selfishly to the detriment of the movement.

But the center-right is not some monolithic force with identical interests. The Chamber of Commerce supported the stimulus and cash for clunkers. National Right to Life didn't oppose the House health care bill. ATR was silent on the partial-birth abortion bill.

An analogy: I've read reviewers critique a book for not covering some topics they find important. Such criticism is silly, because it boils down to this: Even though the author wrote the book he said he would write, the reviewer wishes the author had written a different book than he wrote.

Today, some conservatives wish the NRA were a different organization than it is. It is not a conservative lobby. It is not the right's American Civil Liberties Union.

It is a gun rights group. On some occasions, the NRA has pushed pro-gun legislation that is anti-conservative — such as bills limiting private property owners from prohibiting legal guns.

The NRA hasn't endorsed Van Hollen's crooked bit of cynical politicking, and it isn't critiquing anyone who fights the bill. It has just decided not to use gun-rights money to oppose a speech-rights bill.

And of course, the real villain here is Van Hollen, who — in the name of curbing the special interests — gave the biggest special interests a free pass.

But even faced with these valid arguments the NRA's walking away from this fight is hard to swallow. As NRA board member Cleta Mitchell puts it, the First Amendment is a principle, not merely an issue.

Also, Van Hollen's deal is so clearly unfair, and the NRA, by dropping its objection to the bill, is indirectly using unfair means to protect gun rights.

NRA lobbyists say they are just looking out for their members. In this case, that means abandoning friends.

Timothy P. Carney is The Washington Examiner's lobbying editor. His K Street column appears on Wednesdays.

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