Look closely at the grassroots

We see and hear the ads all the time: “Call your senators today and tell them to oppose this bill!” Have you ever wondered where those messages come from, who pays for them and who creates them? Sometimes, the groups sponsoring the television commercials, newspaper spreads, or evening phone calls will come right out and tell you exactly who they are. Often, however, those behind such communications, called grassroots lobbying, don’t provide us with the information we need to figure out who the messenger really is.

Many elected officials and organizations across the political spectrum claim transparency in government is important. But this dedication to openness seems to crumble away when policymakers attempt to shine a light on grassroots lobbying efforts meant to influence federal legislation. In 1995, Congress made clear that organizations and people that directly lobby Congress must disclose, but did not act on grassroots lobbying disclosure. Now a dozen years later, when grassroots lobbying has become a growth industry, with big money being used to have big-time influence in the nation’s capital, attention has turned to the dealings of grassroots lobbyists, who sometimes hide behind the mask of phony organizations.
As the debate over grassroots lobbying has escalated, so too has the rhetoric from both the right and the left. Many conservatives argue that disclosure of this activity in some way violates free-speech rights, even though it places no limits on what can be said or how often it is said. Increasing public access to lobbying information won’t trample the First Amendment. Indeed, a constitutional scholar at the Congressional Research Service recently determined that grassroots lobbying disclosure is constitutional. History shows that disclosure does not become a foot in the door for regulating speech.
At the same time, a number of liberal and good-government organizations only want hired firms to be on the hook for disclosure of grassroots lobbying activity. However, disclosure requirements should not and cannot single out particular groups of people, even if a specific segment of people has been the most heavily involved in phony grassroots lobbying campaigns.

A better way to approach grassroots lobbying disclosure is to require all actors who meet defined thresholds to disclose their grassroots lobbying activity. This can be done without burdening small groups. The historical record bears this out: Unions have been disclosing political activities, including grassroots lobbying activities, to the Department of Labor for many years. Additionally, for decades, charities have been disclosing their grassroots lobbying activities to the IRS, without infringing on freedom of speech, without chilling debate and without burying groups under mountains of paperwork. Disclosure requirements can build on this existing statutory and regulatory framework.

Lobbying, including its grassroots version, has received a bad rap as of late, thanks to the criminal actions of Jack Abramoff and his ilk. However, lobbying is critical to our democracy and to maintaining a vibrant civil society. It is a First Amendment right to be cherished and strengthened. But there is no reason why the American people should be kept in the dark about which corporations and organizations are seeking to influence the decisions of the federal government. Sunlight is the best of disinfectants, as former Justice Louis Brandeis said.

This is part of what the voters were saying in the last election: Stop the corrupting influence of special interests. A recent Internet survey conducted by OMB Watch showed that the public still cares greatly about transparency and reduction of government corruption, as 70 percent of the roughly 1,100 people who responded said they strongly support grassroots lobbying disclosure.

The difficulty in passing a valuable, effective grassroots lobbying disclosure provision since the 110th Congress came into power in January has shown the nation that, all rhetoric aside, powerful special interests still hold sway on Capitol Hill. When the House takes up lobbying reform legislation later this month, the leadership will have a chance to get it right on grassroots lobbying disclosure. In so doing, the House can take a step toward delivering a more transparent government to an eager public.

Bass is the executive director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.