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In a recent e-blast, the conservative Family Research Council expressed gratitude for the election of Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to the House majority leader post and welcomed his platform for “genuine” lobbying reform. Genuine reform presumably being anything that avoids binding the hands of well-funded grass-roots groups like the Family Research Council. “Non-profit organizations similar to FRC were victims of Jack Abramoff’s insider wheeling and dealing,” wrote FRC President Tony Perkins, who took a shot at Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) reform proposal, which requires grass-roots lobbying disclosure. “Grass-roots activists should not be made the whipping boys for a scandal not of their making,” Perkins concluded. Having escaped the last round of lobbying reform, in the mid-’90s, influential grass-roots lobbying groups aim to avoid this round of reforms, as well. By building a massive web of often-concealed connections, such groups have enjoyed a heyday in Washington over the past 10 years. Now all of the major lobbying reform bills under consideration call for greater disclosure by the grass-roots community. Perhaps the toughest in this regard is McCain’s, which requires grass-roots lobbying firms retained by clients to register with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives within 20 days. But many conservative groups, which have made particularly good use of grass-roots networks, are apprehensive about the proposed changes and are having active discussions about how to react to the reforms. “We have severe concerns, and they are growing day by day,” says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life, who has been in talks with the FRC. “We have nothing to say about other [lobby reform] provisions . . . junkets, gifts, and stuff. . . . But that type of activity [grass-roots based] is at the core of the First Amendment, our right to free speech and right to petition.”
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The McCain bill, which Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) is sponsoring in the House, is a source of particular discomfort. “In requiring us to report to Congress and in effect to tip off the nature and content of our grass-roots efforts before they occur, Congress would be infringing on a constitutionally protected right to petition elected officials,” says David Christensen, director of congressional affairs at the FRC. “We support efforts to confront fraud, but these provisions do not accomplish that.” For other groups, tightened regulations on grass-roots lobbying is a non-issue. For example, Jim Clarke, senior vice president for the American Society of Association Executives, says that although the grass-roots provision is a concern for his group, the society is more focused on beating back a potential ban on travel. And Kay Guinane, director of OMB Watch, a nonprofit government watchdog group, says they are generally supportive of reporting grass-roots lobbying expenditures, so long as the definition of grass-roots lobbying is consistent with the Internal Revenue Service rules designating nonprofits and charities. Guinane is concerned that a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would define “grass-roots lobbying” as including communications on an issue even if it wasn’t related to particular legislation. It’s possible that these concerns are much ado about nothing, says Craig Holman, a legislative representative at Public Citizen, a watchdog group. Though he admits that groups are worried about grass-roots reform, Holman says that McCain’s camp — foolishly, in his view — adopted the grass-roots provision used in the 1994 lobbying reform bill that caused a major bipartisan uproar. “They made the mistake and didn’t consult with us,” he says. “That provision — the staff [McCain's] is well aware that it will draw huge opposition.” A staffer on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee says that Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine), at the leadership’s request, plans to mark up the bill the week of Feb. 27 and that McCain’s measure will probably be the base bill from which they work. The staffer concedes, however, that they have not yet received every lobby reform bill. Matt Vogel, chief of staff to Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) — whose companion bill in the Senate is being sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) — says that Meehan’s bill requires federal lobbyists to disclose the amounts they spend on grass-roots lobbying and requires lobbyists hired by coalitions to identify the coalitions’ members. “I think it’s likely to stand up in committee,” says Vogel. “It definitely makes it more difficult for special-interest lobbyists to create phony grass-roots coalitions. If you are a paid lobbyist and you are creating expenditures to try to create the appearance of a grass-roots coalition, you will have to disclose what you are doing.” The bill that became the 1996 Lobbying Disclosure Act expressly exempted grass-roots associations and coalitions. The groups complained that disclosure requirements would invade their privacy and restrict their First Amendment rights. A collection of curious allies, including Rush Limbaugh, Ralph Nader, Pat Robertson, and the American Civil Liberties Union, came out against such reporting requirements, and the provisions were removed from the bill. It’s still unclear if a similar array will band together this time around. Christensen says that in coming weeks he will talk with other conservative organizations. A spokesman for the ACLU said it was too early to determine whether the group would take a position. Douglas Johnson argues that including a grass-roots provision could endanger any reform bill. “I expect virtually all these organizations would be neutral on lobbying reform, but if they [Congress] are looking to have this be a major stumbling block, they should put it in [the grass-roots provision],” he says.

Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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