Groups concerned about grassroots reform

Lobbying organizations that depend on grassroots activism to press their agendas are monitoring emerging lobbying-reform proposals closely, concerned that new requirements could quell citizen involvement in the political process.

Representatives of groups such as AARP, the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) say that so far they have not seen legislative language that seriously troubles them, but they are urging lawmakers not to go too far.

The bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and another sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) include language mandating that registered lobbyists disclose their involvement in grassroots campaigns. The bills place a special emphasis on firms that specialize in running the ad hoc grassroots activities sometimes derisively described as “astroturf.”

Some lawmakers want to require greater transparency when lobbying organizations, on their own or through specialty public-relations firms, try to generate public support for their legislative priorities. These efforts often include the creation of coalitions or umbrella organizations that reach out to the public without openly declaring their ties to special interests.

Those nervous about the effects of new disclosure rules stress that legislation should be carefully constructed so that it does not discourage people from contacting their congressional representatives — and does not discourage lobbying groups from urging them to do so.

Lobbyists stressed that the proposed reforms have yet to raise any red flags.

“I don’t know that it’s a sense of worry” motivating AARP’s watchfulness on these provisions, said David Certner, the group’s director of federal affairs.

Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO’s legislative director, agreed that the labor union’s officials “have not found reason to be concerned” by the current slate of bills.

“Nobody has said, ‘OK, this is an outrageous thing,’” said Wendy Selig, the Cancer Society’s vice president for legislative affairs. “We would be concerned about anything that would somehow restrict the ability of an individual to be heard,” she added.

The House Republican leadership is expected to unveil its reform package as early as this week, with the Senate to follow in the near future.

AARP considers itself a “megaphone” that communicates its ideas to its paying members, volunteers and the general public on the issues under its purview, which primarily affect older Americans, Certner said.

Likewise, the people AARP targets are vital to its lobbying efforts in Washington.

“We’ve got lots of volunteers and members who are urged to contact their members” and undertake other activities across the country to promote AARP’s legislative agenda, Certner said.

Congress must make sure not to “make it more difficult for real people — not moneyed interests — to make their voices heard,” she said.

At the request of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, AARP submitted written testimony for the lobbying-reform hearing held last Wednesday. The brief statement is largely supportive of Congress’s efforts to address the excesses exposed by the ongoing Jack Abramoff scandal.

But AARP wants to make sure that lawmakers protect the rights of groups such as itself to mobilize the public.

“Onerous or complex reporting requirements on citizen volunteers could result in fewer people taking on what is really a duty of every citizen,” reads a statement by AARP CEO Bill Novelli that was submitted as testimony.

At the Senate hearing, NAM President John Engler specified that his member companies would primarily be concerned about new reporting requirements dissuading firms from petitioning Congress.

“Just how do we continue to function and how much paperwork and burden gets imposed to the point where it’s a tipping point and you say it’s not worth it?” Engler said.

Several committee members emphasized that their chief concern is “astroturf” lobbying. The law needs to “require disclosure of ‘hired gun’ efforts to simulate — pardon me — to stimulate grassroots lobby,” quipped Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of McCain’s bill, sought to allay the concerns of the groups present for the hearing. The legislation “aims to remove a cloak of mystery over ad hoc lobbying coalitions,” he said.

Lieberman said he is trying to avoid a repeat performance of activities conducted by Abramoff and his associate Michael Scanlon, who operated a grassroots public-relations effort and therefore did not have to disclose his activities or his payments publicly.

Scanlon recently pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribes as part of a scheme developed with Abramoff.

“We’re not meaning people working directly for the AFL-CIO or NAM, but lobbying firms that you might retain so that — obviously not in your case, but as in the Abramoff case he used the Scanlon firm to funnel millions of dollars back to him,” Lieberman said.