Senate Bill Ignores 'Astroturf' Lobbying

If you want to catch the attention of Congress, you can hire Washington lobbyists or "grassroots" lobbyists. Both will mobilize lawmakers to support your cause. But while Washington lobbyists have to disclose who pays them, grassroots lobbyists don't.

Last week the U.S. Senate passed a lobby reform bill and even Senator John McCain (R-AZ) — a champion of cleaning up Capitol Hill — voted against a provision that would have required grassroots lobbyists to disclose their fees.

This raised a few eyebrows, because the same provision sailed through the Senate less than a year ago.

Grassroots lobbying is big business. Everyone does it, from non-profits groups to corporations who run the big bucks, pseudo-grassroots efforts mockingly known as "Astroturf" lobbying. A classic example is the "Harry and Louise" television advertisements in 1993.

The middle class couple in the ads talked about the bureaucratic nature of the plan and helped turn public opinion against President Bill Clinton's health care plan.

Health care insurers spent $17 million for the ads. Under the current law, they wouldn't have to reveal where that money came from or how it was spent.

Such secrecy can lead to fraud. Take the case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He had to report his fees as a Washington lobbyist, but for grassroots work he would make clients hire his buddy Michael Scanlon, at wildly inflated prices. And Scanlon didn't have to disclose anything.

McCain ran a high-profile investigation of Abramoff and just last year cited the scam as a reason for reform. But he turned against grassroots lobbying disclosure, after mostly conservative groups lobbied him. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, was one of the highest profile critics of grassroots disclosure.

When Democrats took control of Congress earlier this month, Dobson said on his radio show that the grassroots lobbying provision was designed to silence people like him. "When the Democrats are in the majority, they move instantly to consolidate their power and confuse or silence opposition," said Dobson.

Wendy Wright is president of Concerned Women for America and another critic of the grassroots provision. "One thing I love about this is that grassroots activism helped to kill a threat to grassroots activism," said Wright. And Wright says she knows why McCain sided with the conservative groups: "...because he is running for president."

But a spokesman for McCain said the Senator didn't want genuine citizens' groups to get caught in the same net as actors such as Abramoff and Scanlon.

Only one liberal group lobbied against grassroots lobbying disclosure, the American Civil Liberties Union. The progressive group, OMB Watch, lobbied for it... Director Gary Bass says his side lost because the bill's sponsors had to defend other provisions while McCain gave cover to the conservative groups.

Supporters of grassroots lobbying disclosure will have another chance, though. The issue is sure to come up again in the House.

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