Grassroots lobby girds for battle

As the new Democratic Congress prepares to take up a package of lobbying and ethics rules changes, a coalition of nonprofits and communications firms is renewing the push against new grassroots lobbying disclosure rules and not ruling out a future court challenge to the provisions.

As the new Democratic Congress prepares to take up a package of lobbying and ethics rules changes, a coalition of nonprofits and communications firms is renewing the push against new grassroots lobbying disclosure rules and not ruling out a future court challenge to the provisions.

The Free Speech Coalition is now leading the fight against proposals for mandatory reporting by any group involved in paid efforts to stimulate grassroots communications — another term for the proverbial pleas to voters to “contact your congressman” on a particular issue. Led by conservative fixtures such as direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie and Free Congress Foundation chief Paul Weyrich, the coalition is pulling no punches.

“If they pass this, there would be a massive litigation effort, because this bill is much more expansive than the proponents are leading everybody to believe,” predicted Mark Fitzgibbons, president of corporate and legal affairs at the Viguerie-led firm American Target Advertising.

Lawmakers supporting grassroots disclosure have aimed their calls for reform at so-called “astroturf” campaigns, funded by corporate interests but portrayed as genuine citizen drives. Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) cited fake grassroots groups created by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff during their successful bid to add new disclosure rules to last year’s Senate ethics bill. Registration and reporting would shed sunlight on grassroots activities, not curtail them, the senators noted.

But the coalition contends that the new rules would provide a loophole for corporations that confine their grassroots communications to employees and shareholders. Though grassroots disclosure is backed by most leading government watchdog groups, all of which could be affected by the new reporting rules, the coalition has trained its fire on Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen in a letter that will be forwarded to every member of the new Congress this week.

“This … is a coalition of groups that have a financial stake and are worried that their business might be impacted negatively,” said Laura MacCleery, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. MacCleery acknowledged the possibility of a lawsuit against the new rules but cautioned the coalition against considering a challenge before legislative language emerges.

The debate on last year’s Senate lobbying bill elicited an equally fierce drive against the grassroots provision, mounted by an alliance called LobbySense that included as members senior officials at Americans for Tax Reform, Concerned Women for America and the Family Research Council. Fitzgibbons said LobbySense informed him of the likely resurgence of the grassroots debate, and that he expected the old and new coalitions to join forces in the coming months.

The timeframe for consideration of grassroots lobbying rules could differ sharply between the Senate and House, however. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to call up last year’s Senate ethics bill, which contains Lieberman and Levin’s grassroots provisions, as a starting point for debate next week.

But the House will take up only internal rules changes on lobbying and ethics this month, sending statutory changes such as the grassroots mandate through regular committee order, said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We have made an effort to address the concerns of some of these groups as we move along with this,” Hammill said.

The conservative blogosphere has lent its heft to the Coalition’s campaign against grassroots disclosure, along with past Federal Election Commission Chairman Brad Smith, who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton. Smith also predicted that the grassroots provisions would merit a court challenge if they become law.

“It’s a disaster, generally, the notion that the government should be checking up on attempts by citizens to communicate with citizens,” Smith said. He argued that lawmakers are seeking the identity of firms paying for constituent calls for purposes of retaliation: “Can you think of any other reason that members of Congress need to know who’s running grassroots ads in their district?”

The Senate bill’s grassroots language is similar to that in the House Democratic leadership lobbying reform bill that is serving as a model for this year’s effort. The provisions would require grassroots lobbying firms to register and report to Congress quarterly, only on communications to more than 500 members of the general public, with exemptions for members of nonprofits as well as corporate employees and shareholders.

MacCleery also singled out the proposal’s minimum of $25,000 in grassroots expenses to trigger reporting by the firms contracted for any issue campaign. “That’s a substantial amount of money on a grassroots lobbying effort, particularly in the age of the Internet,” she said.

As for the coalition’s rhetorical combat with Public Citizen, MacCleery characterized the specter of a lawsuit against grassroots rules as an attempt to generate a false opposition to reform. 

“It’s almost like they’re flacks,” she added, “like they’re good at creating the appearance of controversy where none exists.”