House Democrats intend to ease proposed restrictions on political activity by federal contractors, officials said Monday, hoping to build support for legislation establishing new disclosure and other requirements for the fall campaign.
The change would permit holders of federal contracts of $10 million or less to engage in independent political activity such as purchasing television advertising or distributing mass mailings with their own funds. The bill's ban originally applied to all but contractors with $50,000 worth of federal business and less, a threshold that was later raised to $7 million.
The move came as the White House announced its backing for the legislation, and sponsors released a memo from presidential pollster Joel Benenson citing "strong bipartisan support for ... measures to limit special interest influence and increase transparency."
Attempts to clear the bill for a vote last week faltered as the result of controversy involving the National Rifle Association and proposed exemptions from requirements for independent groups to disclose their donors. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the bill's chief sponsor, has said he hopes for passage in the House in the next several days.
The legislation was drafted in response to a Supreme Court ruling last winter that freed corporations and unions to spend their own funds on advertising and other campaign activity.
Democrats say the new rules are needed to force shadowy independent organizations and others to disclose their donors, rather than be permitted to operate anonymously.
Republican critics counter the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to place business groups at a disadvantage relative to labor unions, and contend it includes unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech. To buttress their contention that the bill's aim is political, Republicans also note that Van Hollen is the head of the Democratic campaign effort in the House, and that the measure's chief sponsor on the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, served two terms in charge of the party's campaign organization in the Senate.
As originally drafted, the measure included a ban on independent political activity by all entities with federal contractors in excess of $50,000, and said the move would eliminate any appearance that "inappropriate or corrupting influence" was involved in the award of government work.
A revised version, approved in committee last month, raised the exemption to $7 million. Several officials said during the day it would be raised yet again, to $10 million. They spoke on condition of anonymity, saying the details of a series of last-minute changes had not yet been made public.
The administration's statement said the legislation "prevents those who should not interfere in the nation's elections like corporations controlled by foreign interests from doing so. Unless strong new disclosure rules are established, the Supreme Court's decision ... will give corporations even greater power to influence elections," it said.
The White House added, "This bill is not perfect. The administration would have preferred no exemptions," a reference to the controversy that stalled the legislation last week when moderate Democrats sought a change to satisfy the NRA.
As originally drafted, the measure would have required all outside groups to disclose the names of the top five donors whose contributions had made possible television commercials. The NRA objected, saying the rule was unconstitutional. The group has numerous supporters among rank-and-file Democrats, and aides inside the party's leadership concluded that without a change, the measure would go down to defeat.
As a result the bill was changed to grant an exemption from the disclosure requirement for any group with at least 1 million members. The NRA then agreed to step aside while the House votes on the measure, rather than lobby for or against it.
When it appeared the change would have the effect of exempting only the NRA, which often opposes Democratic priorities, liberals rebelled and the level was reset to 500,000-membership organizations.
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