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People who want Congress to spend more money, or cut taxes, or tweak some regulations, often hire grassroots lobbyists. They specialize in creating the impression that voters are excited about an issue. The lobbyists then say the public is demanding whatever it is the lobbyists want.
Unlike other people who influence Washington, grassroots lobbyists do not have to disclose the fees they charge. And when the Senate passed lobbying reforms last week, it voted not to make those payments public.
Even John McCain, the Senate champion of changing campaign laws, let the lobbyists keep their privacy. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: Grassroots lobbying is big business for everyone from nonprofit groups to corporations running the big bucks pseudo-grassroots efforts mockingly known as Astroturf lobbying.
A classic example is Harry and Louise, TV ads in the mid-1990s that helped turn public opinion against President Bill Clinton's healthcare plan. Healthcare insurers spent $17 million for the ads. Under current law, they don't have to reveal where they got that 17 million or how they spent it. Secrecy can also lead to fraud.
Take the case of lobbyist Jack Abramoff. As a Washington lobbyist, Abramoff had to report his fees, but for grassroots work he would make clients hire his buddy Michael Scanlon at wildly inflated prices. Scanlon didn't have to disclose anything. McCain ran a high-profile investigation of Abramoff and cited his scam as a reason for reform just one year ago.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): We saw phony Christian grassroots organizations consisting of a box of cell phones in a desk drawer. I would submit that in the great marketplace of ideas we call public discourse, truth is a premium that we can't sacrifice.
OVERBY: The Abramoff scandals spurred the Republican-controlled Senate to pass an ethics bill last March. It included grassroots lobby disclosure. The bill passed the Senate overwhelmingly, but never became law. And McCain voted against it. He had turned against grassroots lobby disclosure after mostly conservative groups lobbied him. A spokeswoman for McCain said he didn't want genuine citizens groups to get caught in the same net as actors such as Abramoff and Scanlon.
This year, under Democratic leadership, the Senate revived the grassroots provision word for word in a new lobby reform bill. Conservative groups responded swiftly. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, said on his radio show that the provision was aimed at silencing people like him.
Mr. JAMES DOBSON (Focus on the Family): When the Democrats are in the majority, they move instantly to consolidate their power and confuse or silence opposition.
OVERBY: And the mostly conservative coalition sprang up. Wendy Wright is president of Concerned Women for America.
Ms. WENDY WRIGHT (Concerned Women for America): This was such a dire threat that we need to have meetings to make sure people were motivated to work on this. One thing I love about this is that grassroots activism helped to kill a threat to grassroots activism.
OVERBY: McCain was among those voting to kill the provision. And Wendy Wright says she knows why.
Ms. WRIGHT: Because he is running for president.
OVERBY: A common idea, but wrong, says McCain's spokeswoman, pointing out that his opposition began last year. Still, lobbyists note that he's reaching to conservatives as he seeks the GOP nomination. And while one liberal group, the American Civil Liberties Union, lobbied against disclosure, most other groups on the left saw no need to get involved. One progressive group, OMB Watch, worked for grassroots lobby disclosure.
Director Gary Bass says his side lost because the bill's sponsors had to defend other provisions, while McCain, the Senate icon of clean government, gave cover to opponents. Bass says it added up to one thing.
Mr. GARY BASS (Director, OMB Watch): A great opportunity for those who opposed the provision to help maneuver and outgun those who think disclosure is the right thing to do.
OVERBY: But this is just round one. Grassroots lobby disclosures seem sure to come up in the House, and this time both sides will be ready.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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