Grassroots Prove Tough to Weed Out in Ethics Battle

USAction, a nonprofit advocacy organization that aligns itself with victims of asbestos poisoning, went to the public to make its argument against a single government-backed plan to pay for decades of asbestos-related health claims.

USAction officials said they believed the asbestos fund bill before the Senate last month was too shortsighted and would have been a windfall for the companies that are liable for injury claims. So in a classic grassroots campaign, the group spent $1.5 million on television advertising, targeting millions of viewers in Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana and other states between January and February.

It also organized a blitz of phone calls and door knocking, contacting several thousand more people in the efforts to get people to call their congressional representatives and demand them to vote against the $140 billion plan.

Korey Hartwich, USAction's point-person for the campaign, estimated that the efforts got hundreds of people to call their representatives in Congress just as the Senate was about to take up legislation that would enact the plan that USAction opposed. The bill was pulled, and USAction was able to claim victory.

What was going on inside each senator's head when they cast their votes is anybody's guess, Hartwich said, but "I think that our affiliates did a pretty good job in getting that message to their senators."

"Our job is to let those folks know that those issues are coming up and they affect regular people's lives. ... Our goal is to make sure the public's voices are heard in Washington," Hartwich said.

Officially known as grassroots lobbying, USAction's type of campaign is used by groups across the political spectrum — from liberals to conservatives, and from hand-to-mouth activist groups to high-paid business conglomerates.

Through grassroots lobbying, groups work to mobilize public support for or against positions on a seemingly endless number of issues, spanning Supreme Court nominees and foreign trade practices, civil liberties and gasoline prices.

But in the wake of ethics reform proposals that followed the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, the mechanics of grassroots lobbying is under new review by lawmakers seeking to tighten rules that had been flaunted and flouted by Abramoff.

Scandal Shifts Focus to Grassroots

When Abramoff was looking for ways to siphon money off American Indian tribes who had hired him, he directed his Native American clients to a number of different companies that he and his associate Michael Scanlon had quietly formed, including grassroots lobbying organizations, according to the plea agreement Abramoff signed in January.

Along with the other self-serving organizations the two created, the grassroots companies overcharged the tribes, and Abramoff never told his Indian clients of his relationship with the grassroots groups. He and Scanlon split the excess proceeds as part of their scheme to bilk the tribes, which netted them a total reported value of at least $45 million.

Using Abramoff as an example, lawmakers began introducing ethics reform packages last year. A number of the proposals targeted grassroots lobbying as an area ripe for changes.

Supporters of reform measures say the problem lies in the fact that lobbyists who work with grassroots organizations do not directly contact legislators or their staff members, and therefore, are not subject to registration and disclosure requirements set out in the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Although the proposals are by no means a done deal, the reforms have elicited questions about privacy rights among groups that use the technique, with lobbyists who perform grassroots work saying non-lobbying firms or the general public, instead of themselves, might end up being the unintended targets of new regulations.

"Grassroots lobbying has nothing to do with the corruption that was brought to light with the Abramoff scandal," said Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron. "We shouldn't restrict the right of ordinary Americans to request information, petition their government. We shouldn't adopt rules that violate the privacy" of employees.

Congressional Progress Limited So Far

Efforts to codify grassroots lobbying regulations are set forth in the ethics reform bill that is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. Other versions have been proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., House Democrats, and others. The House and Senate likely will have to negotiate a compromise version of lobbying rules before it is sent to the White House for President Bush's signature.

The grassroots provision in the Senate bill — which is the most advanced legislation discussing grassroots lobbying — was added earlier this month as an amendment by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., when the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee took up the bill. The amendment passed by a 10-6 vote on the panel. The bill is awaiting a Senate floor vote. The vote was delayed last week when it was expected to be up for debate.

Lieberman said during that committee's March 2 meeting that his amendment would get grassroots lobbying firms "to do exactly what every other lobbyist does," report money spent on lobbying campaigns. Under his plan, grassroots efforts directed to an organization's members wouldn't qualify, but when an outside lobbyist or firm gets involved in aiding a group, the law would kick in.

"It's a big business and it seems to me ... it's a good business and it's aimed at getting people involved in our political system. But if it operates in the dark, there is a danger of abuse. And we now have evidence of at least one case of that in the Abramoff matter," Lieberman said.

Lieberman's amendment — added to a substitute bill offered by him and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine in place of McCain's legislation — focuses on a narrower range of activities than the original, although Lieberman initially had supported McCain's proposal. The current version would require fewer disclosures than would have been required in McCain's bill, but more than are now required.

Sen. Carl Levin, who voted in favor of Lieberman's amendment, said the new rules would shed light on a shady side of lobbying. He estimated that $1 billion is spent each year on grassroots lobbying that is not reported in disclosure forms.

But some members of that committee expressed reservations about such a regulation.

Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, said that while he agreed with the principle of asking for more reporting, the amendment was too open-ended.

"It's just too vague for me to feel comfortable," Bennett said.

On Tuesday evening, sources said House Republican leaders reached agreement on a lobbying reform package that would require lobbyists to disclose gifts they give lawmakers. House members would be temporarily barred from taking privately funded trips under legislation endorsed Tuesday.

While House Democrats have included grassroots lobbying reform in its proposed package, it was unclear whether that issue would be addressed in the Republican plan.

Reforms Might Not Reach Intended Target

How the proposals play out is a vital concern to some groups that use grassroots efforts.

In February, The Alliance for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and several other organizations signed onto a letter to Congress, saying they thought the new rules would duplicate IRS rules that already cover grassroots expenditures, and might invade the privacy of people who either work for, or belong to grassroots organizations.

Liz Towne, Alliance for Justice's director of advocacy programs, is listed in congressional records as the on-staff lobbyist for her group, which most recently fought the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito. She said some of the proposed rules would force her to go further, including disclosing to her boss any personal political contributions, which could be in direct conflict with the needs of her organization.

"I think what I do on my private time should be my private business," Towne said.

Towne and her boss, Aron, said they would rather Congress not address grassroots groups in its ethics reforms.

"Enforcement of existing law is the preferred way of gaining information about [grassroots] activities that might be deemed unacceptable," Aron said.

Another question is whether the rules target the groups they're intending to target, said Julius Hobson, a lobbyist for the American Medical Association and an adjunct associate professor of lobbying at George Washington University.

"Part of the problem of grassroots lobbying is trying to determine when it's really 'grassroots' and when it's 'grass tops,' " Hobson said. The difference in the end is subtle, if imperceptible, but the process is almost totally different.

Hobson said he classifies "grassroots" as what actually starts as an idea at the bottom of the political pyramid, and filters up through citizens to lawmakers.

"Grass tops," on the other hand, "is when you create a sense of something's going on here, when in fact, it's created from Washington," Hobson said. He said one of the most famous examples of this was the "Harry and Louise" ads that are credited with helping to defeat President Clinton's health care reform package in the 1990s.

Hobson said that disclosure requirements should help to sort out who is doing what. Especially when a so-called grassroots group is serving as a clearinghouse or umbrella organization for several groups that might not be forthright with their true intentions.

Hartwich, the manager of the campaign against the asbestos bill, said he'll be watching what comes out of Congress in coming weeks. He said he believes it's important to remove the links between money, politics and lobbying, and reform packages are always worth keeping an eye on.

"We strongly believe that the vast amounts [of money] that are involved in lobbying need to be taken out of the system," Hartwich said. "One of the concerns that I have is when the word 'reform' is used, who does that reform benefit?"