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The Senate Takes a Look at Pamphleteers
By: Thomas J. Stanton (Courtesy of
Posted: 3/13/2006

Washington, D.C. A recent story reported that in the eyes of one conservative group, a lesser-known Senate lobbying proposal would have forced Revolutionary patriots to reveal their leafleting routes to King George.

A fanciful leap, for sure, continued the report, but what the provision would do is require the disclosure of money spent on the kind of grassroots campaigns that involve paying lobbyists to recruit large numbers of people to call or write or e-mail their lawmakers and press their views on, say, school prayer or trigger locks or greenhouse gases.

To its supporters, the provision would unmask "Astroturf" ventures, fake grassroots operations with big money funneled through shell groups that employ friendly voices and benign names to cajole voters into swamping government officials with messages. Nearly every elected official has felt the onslaught of mass campaigns: phone lines clogged, letter bins overflowing, servers jammed with e-mail.

Kate Philips wrote in her New York Times report that this proposal attracted little attention at first, overshadowed as it was by the clamor over trips on corporate jets and golfing excursions to Scotland. But in recent weeks, it has provoked a lot of noise from outside groups, ranging from the free-speech group American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Concerned Women for America. They have proved formidable enough that leading Republican senators distanced themselves from the amendment last week to the point where the provision’s survival is doubtful.

The tempest once again laid bare a conflict seemingly inherent in the pairing of money and politics: public disclosure versus free speech.

The proposal, contends, writer Philips, Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, suggests that "you’re not free to be a Tom Paine pamphleteer unless you notify the government of who you’re talking to, and what you’re saying, and what it costs." Quite a few groups on the left object on similar grounds, saying that grassroots lobbying reflects a fundamental right of citizens to petition their government.

In a letter to senators last week, the A.C.L.U. wrote, "It is well settled that lobbying, which embodies the separate and distinct political freedoms of petitioning, speech and assembly, enjoys the highest constitutional protection." Citing Supreme Court precedents, it said that "petitioning the government is ‘core political speech,’ for which First Amendment protection is ‘at its zenith.’ "

The story goes on to say that this particular measure is an outgrowth of the Jack Abramoff scandal, in which ghost foundations were used to funnel money from Indian tribes into lobbying and perks. Other examples of manufactured grassroots campaigns include a senior citizens’ coalition for drug companies in the Medicare prescription debate and the "Harry and Louise" health care campaign financed by the insurance industry.

The amendment, reports Philips, sponsored by the Democratic senators Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Carl Levin of Michigan, would require disclosure within 45 days of retaining a lobbying group for big rallying projects. The rule would apply to campaigns that spend $25,000 in three months or $100,000 in a year, and recruit more than 500 people to contact government officials on a position.

Prof. James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University and a lobbying expert who favors disclosure rules, estimates that billions are spent on grassroots lobbying, possibly more than on direct lobbying. Other supporters also emphasize that there is no requirement to disclose individual donors.

"We’re not asking grassroots lobbyists to do anything that we have not asked direct lobbyists to do,"Leslie J. Phillips, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lieberman, to the New York Times. The argument "does not hold because we are not in any way restricting their activities."

An added benefit, said Donald Tobin, an associate professor at Ohio State University’s law school, who specializes in election law, is that "disclosure is an important tool to expose government corruption."

If that’s the case, the report continued, some groups argue they’re the wrong target. In the absence of an established record of corruption or abuse, mandating disclosure is too burdensome for nonprofit groups, said Marvin J. Johnson, legislative counsel for the A.C.L.U. It doesn’t meet the constitutional test, he said, which requires that the government show a compelling interest to impose limits on speech.

Congress should first rein in its excesses, and should not assume, the groups say, that voters, even if coaxed into action, were insincere or dumbly manipulated by a lobbying machine.

Kerri Houston, vice president of policy for Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative think tank, criticized senators for trespassing outside their backyard. "They’re arresting the neighbors, not the burglar," she said, noting remarks by some proponents at Senate hearings who found callers’ views annoying. "Is that the real reason that we’re having grassroots restrictions, is because they find the constituent obnoxious?"

Philips’ report concluded by that that with the Senate’s appetite for major lobbying restrictions waning last week, the grassroots provision is even more likely to be subsumed, if not jettisoned, when debate resumes over travel and enforcement rules. The House has paid little attention to the issue; given that representatives seek re-election every two years , they know too well how quickly a constituent’s complaint can morph in the polling booth to a rebellious refrain: "Can you hear me now?"

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