The ACLU, Focus on the Family, and Downsize DC All Agree
By James Wilson
They say "politics make strange bedfellows." This is certainly the case when the First Amendment comes under attack. Downsize DC, along with at least 36 other grassroots groups from across the political spectrum, has signed a letter sent to all members of the House of Representatives telling them to oppose grassroots lobbying regulation. (Note: DownsizeDC.org did not write the letter, but we are a signatory.) Here's an excerpt:
The undersigned organizations urge you to reject efforts to regulate paid attempts to encourage citizens to contact their elected representatives. The Senate wisely rejected such an effort, and we urge you to do likewise. In a representative democracy, citizens not only have the inviolable right but also should be encouraged to contact their elected representatives. Erecting reporting barriers, particularly when coupled with civil penalties for failure to report, raises the stakes for inadvertent compliance failure and discourages such communication.
H.R. 2093 has been touted as a narrower application of the reporting requirements contained in the Senate version. The bill, however, still suffers from the fundamental problem that it regulates speech among citizens discussing public policy issues. H.R. 2093 would require a report to be filed by ANY group that hires a consultant to put out a message to the public, and spends over $100,000 in a quarter. A single advertisement or mailing can easily cost more than that. The bill, therefore, does NOT target only the kind of behavior allegedly engaged in by Jack Abramoff, who spent considerably more than the threshold.
H.R. 2093 also sweeps too broadly. For example, a webmaster may, under the bill, have to report as a “grassroots lobbying firm.” Oprah Winfrey has a web site urging people to contact their representative and urge support for a bill for Darfur. (see http://www.oprah.com/tows/slide/200610/20061018/slide_20061018_284_109.jhtml) If she hired a webmaster and paid her $100,000 to design and set up the web site in a quarter, it appears the webmaster has now been transformed into a “grassroots lobbying firm.”
H.R. 2093 is also disturbing because it refers to someone contacting his or her representative as “lobbying,” which would probably come as a shock to most constituents. Most would consider this action as “democracy” rather than “lobbying.” The term “lobbying” has a different connotation, and is regulated because of the possibility of corrupting influence. By equating constituent contact as “lobbying,” the bill opens the possibility of future regulation and reporting of citizens who contact their elected representatives.
The letter concludes,
A provision regulating grassroots “lobbying” would not be based upon a record demonstrating illegal or unethical conduct. To the contrary, proposals thus far cover a vast range of legitimate, constitutionally protected activities by individuals and groups that merely seek to inform their fellow citizens and encourage them to make their voices heard on important public issues. Given the impact on fundamental constitutional rights, the House should not use this opportunity to suppress the people’s voices and their right to voice their opinions to their elected representatives. We therefore urge you to reject any efforts to regulate paid efforts to encourage citizens to contact their elected representatives.
The entire 2-page letter and list of signatories is attached.
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