Published March 14, 2006
WASHINGTON – It's a long-accepted risk in government — laws sometimes have the opposite effect of what their authors intended — and some people watching proposed limits on grassroots lobbying say that the risk might indeed become a reality.
Grassroots lobbying — when an organization, lobbyist or lobbying firm encourages voters to directly contact their representatives — has not held the same weight in federal lobbying regulations as when the lobbyist himself contacts legislators.
But some lawmakers are seeking to tighten the rules and increase public information about grassroots lobbying in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal after Abramoff guided clients to use grassroots lobbying organizations in which he secretly had a personal financial stake.
But unintended consequences could result from new rules on lobbying created as a result of the Abramoff scandal. One such consequence could be an invasion of privacy of people who don't actually lobby on a particular issue, according to a letter from a group of organizations that rely on grassroots efforts to get their messages out.
"The definitions and exceptions in many of the bills [that would target grassroots lobbying] do not restrict grassroots lobbying reporting only to communications regarding specific pending legislative or executive branch proposals, nor do they require such communication to contain a 'call to action.'
"Consequently, virtually any communication — including public education messages — between a registered nonprofit organization and a group of individuals would have to be disclosed."
The "call to action" refers to a specific message, often found in television, radio and newspaper advertisements, that sounds something like, "Call your representative and ask her to vote 'no.' "
The broad language, said Alliance for Justice's on-staff lobbyist Liz Towne, could in some cases force her or other lobbyists to do things such as require her to disclose to her boss federal campaign donations she made, even though the issue she actually lobbied on had nothing to do with the theoretical political campaign donation.
Groups like Towne's and others have expressed the concern that they might have to open membership rolls because of new regulations, although lawmakers have said their proposals are tailored to prevent such a problem.
If a law unintentionally or otherwise allowed such an instance, George Washington University adjunct associate professor of lobbying Julius Hobson said it might run up against a decades-old Supreme Court decision regarding group members' privacy rights.
The 1958 Supreme Court decision in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Patterson was the result of a court battle that began in the midst of the racially tense Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts that were one of the high-watermarks of the civil rights movement.
In 1956, when the NAACP organized the Montgomery bus boycott, Alabama officials first sought to oust the group from the state through the courts. State officials sought the names of each NAACP member in Alabama as part of its case to prove that the NAACP was operating in the state illegally.
The NAACP appealed, and the question that reached the Supreme Court was whether it was constitutional to force the group to turn over its member list. The NAACP argued that doing so would violate its members' rights to organize freely. The Supreme Court agreed.
"People join organizations as a way of expanding their voice and to be heard, and there is an expectation as a dues-paying member that the organization will appropriately represent your views," Hobson said.
One other unintended consequence of a grassroots law could be a boon for some lobbyists and their firms.
Michael Dunn is an Arlington, Va., lobbyist who works in Washington, and his firm lists grassroots services on its website. But here's the catch: Dunn might not fit the definition of a 'grassroots lobbyist' because he doesn't actually engage his clients on issues. Rather, he provides consulting on how others should run grassroots lobbying campaigns.
"It's going to be real hard to regulate," Dunn said.
For instance, Dunn said he worked with automaker Daimler-Chrysler, teaching production plant managers about the legislative process, how to cordially contact representatives in their district and how they could better explain their issues to the lawmakers.
Also, certain grassroots lobbying firms may or may not maintain their own databases of members of the public who would then be asked to contact their representatives. That begs the question of whether the outside company that owns the database or other apparently non-lobbying organizations get drawn into the definition of grassroots lobbyist, Dunn said.
He said he thinks grassroots regulations will end up only being a restriction on the access between constituents and their lawmakers.
"The more you restrict what [constituents] can and cannot learn about that lawmaker, and what they can and cannot do, ... it's a further restriction on democracy," Dunn said.