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Senate Does Right by Grass-roots Lobbyists

Roll Call praises the Senate’s recent work on ethics and lobbying reform with one exception (Editorial, “So Far, So Good,” Jan. 24). It characterizes as a “major deficiency” in the bill the “exclusion of a provision to require disclosure of ‘astroturf’ lobbying — the generation of mass communications to Members from special interests often joined together in coalitions euphemistically named to conceal their true aims.”

Of the policy proposals circulating Capitol Hill to correct lobbying abuses, strengthen the relative voice of citizens and add accountability to the earmarking process, “grass-roots lobbying disclosure” provisions seem oddly out of place. Proposals for grass-roots lobbying disclosure do nothing either to sever the link between lobbyist cash and lawmakers’ pecuniary interests or to strengthen the relative voice of citizens.

Grass-roots lobbying — encouraging or stimulating the general public to contact lawmakers about issues of general concern — is citizen-to-citizen communication that fosters citizen-to-lawmaker communication. It correspondingly weakens the relative strength of lobbyist-to-lawmaker communications, in furtherance of Congress’ objective in seeking lobbying reform.

Proponents characterize the activity as “astroturf lobbying” to imply that the public outcry from such campaigns is fake. It is not. No matter if it is corporations or well-heeled lobbyists who alert citizens to a pending issue, all grass-roots campaigns are “organic” in this sense: They tap true concerns of real citizens. Whatever stimulates a citizen to speak about an issue, once he or she speaks, he or she speaks for reasons of his or her own and speaks directly to his or her elected representatives. This is precisely the point of participatory democracy in our republican form of government.

Roll Call says the provision may have failed because of “confusion over the wording of the Senate draft bill.” But on the most offensive aspect of grass-roots lobbying disclosure there is no confusion (albeit an apparent lack of understanding), for even Roll Call asserts that the House should “require professional lobbyists who form and manage coalitions to disclose what groups comprise them and how much money they are spending to drum up appeals to Congress.”

Requiring grass-roots organizations to register or compelling lobbyists to disclose when they assist groups in contacting fellow citizens would strip consultants of constitutionally guaranteed anonymity and would deprive organizations championing unpopular causes of skilled representation. This anonymity, long recognized and protected by the Supreme Court, fosters political association, guards against unwarranted invasions of privacy and protects the consultants who assist such groups from possible retribution.

Disclosure is not always a good thing. The rationale for requiring disclosure of contributions to campaigns, and of direct lobbying activity, is the same for protecting anonymity in policy discussions: to protect citizens from retribution by abusive officeholders. History demonstrates that while such retribution may be uncommon, it is real.

It is not hard to imagine why officials in 1950s Alabama might have wanted to know the names of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People members, and why the Supreme Court said in response that “[i]t is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as [other] forms of governmental action.” It also is easy to imagine the leverage Alabama could have put on the NAACP and the potential damper on the civil rights movement if 1950s Alabama knew about the NAACP what the 21st-century Congress proposes to learn about grass-roots organizations.

The abuse of nonprofit entities by a handful of lobbyists to host golf trips or entertain lawmakers can be cured in other ways without enacting disclosure measures too attenuated to the problem Congress seeks to address, and that could damage or diminish America’s system of information exchange or drive skilled consultants away from unpopular causes.

Stephen M. Hoersting is executive director of the Center for Competitive Politics.

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