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.
"The House made a decision that there was no way that they could pass it through the House without the exemption," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 and a chief advocate for the Disclose Act. "And they were faced with the choice of 'Do we give them this exemption and get disclosure for everyone else or just let the bill die.' And that's what happened. I mean, no one liked it."
In the end, Democratic lawmakers were more comfortable picking a fight with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The business group wouldn't be exempted from the Disclose Act and opposed it forcefully. The NRA, with a carve-out in hand, stayed silent.
Few on the Hill were surprised at the lawmakers' calculation. The NRA's lobbying prowess was considered stronger even than the Chamber's, which spends tens of millions of dollars on every election cycle. The Disclose Act didn't pass -- it fell a vote short in the Senate -- but it would have been dead in the water with the NRA opposed.
What's remarkable about the gun lobby's work on the Disclose Act was not merely that it affected the course of campaign finance legislation (hardly its policy bailiwick) or that it demanded adherence from lawmakers of both parties. It was how little lobbying the NRA actually had to do in order to get its way. The group's power in the halls of Congress is so evident that it is rarely challenged.
"If word gets spread around the floor that this is an NRA-scored bill, in the past anyway, that has been that," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), referring to the group's practice of counting certain votes to rate lawmakers' loyalty. "It is palpable on the floor when the message that is spread around is that the NRA is scoring this. It's like a wave."
"I am not sure that being a NRA lobbyist responsible for dealing with the Hill is exactly the toughest job around," said Jim Manley, former top spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
That may change now. In the wake of the shooting of 20 first-graders and six educators in Newtown, Conn., on Friday morning, the NRA's political power is facing new challenges -- and not just from the usual set of gun control advocates. On Monday morning, several NRA-backed Democrats said it was time to consider a legislative response to gun violence. Reid, who had doggedly courted the NRA's endorsement in 2010, declared that "everything must be on the table" with respect to curbing gun violence. Some conservative media figures beat him to the punch.
The NRA did not return a request for comment, maintaining its strategy of silence in the aftermath of major gun violence. But when the group does emerge, it will likely have to utilize all the tools at its disposal.
Since 1998, the NRA has spent $28.2 million on lobbying in Washington and employed between 16 and 35 lobbyists in any given year. The group has doled out more than $3.3 million in campaign contributions and $44 million on independent efforts to support its favored candidates in the last three federal elections. These are not large numbers.
The group's great clout lies in the sheer number of people it can mobilize. The NRA boasts four million members, whom it spends a large piece of its budget engaging. Communicating with members constituted one-fourth of all NRA expenses ($57 million) in 2010, the most recent year for which tax filings were available. That is a far higher amount than the NRA spends on lobbying or campaign ads, underscoring the grassroots nature of the group. Members also are the biggest source of funds for the NRA, supplying $100 million out of a total of $227 million in revenue in 2010.
The Huffington Post interviewed 10 current and former aides on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration to gather a fuller sense of how the NRA has become the political force it is today. Their responses were consistent. Because the group is flexible with its endorsements, they said, members of both parties routinely beg for its approval (a group that endorsed only Republicans would be written off as a lost cause by Democrats).
More importantly, they said, the group's engaged, dues-paying members can be activated on short notice. Several staffers noted how office phone systems would be overwhelmed with calls and complaints. Usually, all the NRA had to do was to remind a lawmaker of its position and the chips fell into place.
"It's been so long since anyone has been willing to really take them on that there are few opportunities for them to actually really play hardball going after anyone," explained Matthew Miller, former top spokesman for Attorney General Eric Holder. "They haven't faced a real threat on any bill since the '90s. It's the opposite now -- people fall over themselves to impress them."
Miller recalled how the Obama administration watched the NRA closely when it came time for Holder's confirmation. Had the gun lobby scored the vote, the expectation was that no Republicans would offer their support. Holder was spared that fate. Three years later, however, amidst the controversy over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' "Fast and Furious" program, the NRA decided to score the House contempt vote on the attorney general. Every Republican but two backed the measure. Seventeen Democrats joined them.
"They all want to have 100 percent NRA scorecards," said Miller.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who on Monday morning offered support for revisiting gun control, was one of those lawmakers who sought a 100 percent rating. During his run for the Senate in 2010, he ran an ad in which he literally shot a gun at cap-and-trade legislation. But even devout public support for Second Amendment rights didn't make his staff feel immune from the NRA's pressures.
"Unlike some interest groups, where it is money that creates influence, here it is more the threat of response," said Manchin's former chief of staff, Chris Kofinis. "The idea is that if you come out for any type of gun control, any type of common-sense reform, they are going to come after you, especially if you are a red-state Democrat. And they will paint you with a broad brush as being anti-gun."
With an obedient Congress and a sheepish Obama administration, the NRA spent much of the past four years racking up wins on under-the-radar measures. The group successfully added a provision to the president's health care legislation that bans insurers from charging more to people who own guns. It also moved a law through Congress that requires Amtrak to allow passengers to put weapons in checked bags.
Perhaps its most memorable victory, however, was opening up the nation's national parks to visitors carrying guns. In the early months of the Obama administration, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) attached that measure to a bill requiring tougher oversight of credit card companies. It was a clever gambit. The gun amendment was supported by dozens of House Democrats as well as Reid, and with the president and his team desperately wanting the credit card reforms, the White House had little interest in taking a stand.
The NRA knew this. The group also understood that the inclusion of its amendment would increase the bill's chances of passing. Lawmakers being lobbied by the banking community to limit credit card oversight could be won over if they believed the legislation would be a victory for the gun lobby. As one top Senate Democratic aide noted, "We got lobbied a lot heavier by the banks over the credit card issues than we got lobbied on the guns."
The bill passed, and the message sent was profound. Even under a president who had forcefully supported gun control legislation earlier in his career, the NRA would get its way.
"That is how we started the first Obama term," recalled Manley.