Tags: Congress | Considers | Debate | 'Accidental | Lobbyists'

Congress Considers Debate on 'Accidental Lobbyists'

Monday, 10 April 2006 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- As the House prepares for floor debate on lobbying reform, grassroots organizations are warning that the Senate's version of a reform bill is unconstitutional. These groups are hopeful that the House will not follow the Senate's lead.

Passed by a vote of 90 to 8, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006 places grassroots organizations on essentially the same level as rank-and-file Washington lobbyists.

Therein lies the problem, says Mark Fitzgibbons, president of corporate and legal affairs for American Target Advertising, Inc., a grassroots advertising firm.

Treating grassroots communications to the public the same as "face-to-face" communications between "K-Street and Congress," Fitzgibbons recently told NewsMax, "is a radical and unconstitutional departure" from traditional lobbying regulation.

The bill defines "grassroots lobbying" broadly to include any paid efforts over $25,000 to influence over 500 people to take specific action on a public policy issue. It requires these groups to register with the federal government and provide detailed ongoing reports on their activities.

Reformers led by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., say the provision is meant to stop "astro-turfing;" the use of grassroots marketing by typical inside-the-Beltway players without an explicitly stated connection to the efforts.

But grassroots organizations have a different view. They believe it is a power play. Essentially, grassroots groups say the provision requiring them to give their strategy away to their congressional opponents before the game even begins.

"Basically," explained Jason Wright, executive director of LobbySense, an ad-hoc grouped formed to oppose the provision, "it tells groups that if they want to petition Congress in any significant way, they have to tell Congress about it first."

Fitzgibbons warns that it could have unusual effects. For example, he told NewsMax, "Consider the case of a nationally-syndicated radio talk show host who also has a monthly newsletter, and who uses paid staff to research and write for them."

"On air," Fitzgibbons continues, "he heavily promotes passage of legislation, which is not a lobbying ‘contact' because its part of the broadcast. But, he orders staff to contact Congress and tries to influence citizens to petition Congress."

"The talk show host has become at least a client, and possibly a lobbyist himself, of a grassroots lobbying campaign," he continues. "Under this bill, our hypothetical host, which in reality could be Rush Limbaugh, Neal Boortz, or Al Franken, would have to register and report to Congress on those activities. He'd be fined up to $100,000 if he didn't."

"He'd be more than a talk radio host. He'd be an accidental lobbyist."

Rush, Neal, and Al should rest easy if the House follows it current path. Its version of lobby reform, a bill sponsored by Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., does not include any provisions dealing with grassroots lobbying. But the bill has not yet been brought to the floor.

But even if it is passed without the grassroots regulations, the provisions could be added after negotiations hammer out the differences between the House and Senate versions. If it comes to that, one thing is certain: grassroots lobbying firms will take their fight to court.

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WASHINGTON -- As the House prepares for floor debate on lobbying reform, grassroots organizations are warning that the Senate's version of a reform bill is unconstitutional. These groups are hopeful that the House will not follow the Senate's lead. Passed by a vote of 90...
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2006-00-10
Monday, 10 April 2006 12:00 AM
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