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Do ordinary citizens need to be protected from groups that may urge them to contact their elected Representatives in Congress about some pending bill?
That’s the underlying premise of a proposal introduced May 1 by Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), which the House Judiciary Committee is likely to vote on next week.
The proposal, which will be offered as an amendment to broader “lobbying reform” legislation, would institute an unprecedented system of regulation of efforts to motivate citizens to contact their elected Representatives, or executive branch officials (including the president), about pending legislation.
The target of the Meehan-Shays proposal is sometimes referred to as “grass-roots lobbying.” A similar proposal, voted down in the Senate on Jan. 18, contained this definition: “Grass-roots lobbying means the voluntary efforts of members of the general public to communicate their own views on an issue to Federal officials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same.” The Meehan-Shays proposal simply refers to “campaigns to influence the general public to lobby Congress.”
But when constituents contact their elected Representatives, it is not really “lobbying.” It is representative democracy in action. Is this now a suspect activity, demanding scrutiny and regulation by government agencies?
The purported “problem” at which the proposed new law is aimed was summarized in a recent report in National Journal: “Advocates [of the proposal] ... argue that wealthy individuals, companies, and interest groups ... anonymously pour millions of dollars into fake Grass-roots campaigns — called ‘Astroturf’ lobbying — to create the appearance of popular support for their political agendas.”
In the first place, the First Amendment protects the right of even the wealthy and for-profit corporations to attempt to persuade.
Secondly, the proposed law would not apply only to campaigns mounted by for-profit interests. If this proposal is enacted as part of the broader lobbying reform bill, individual activists and groups on any side of an issue such as global warming, abortion or the Iraq War could face devastating fines, and even prison time, merely for spending money on modest efforts to motivate citizens to communicate with lawmakers — unless they register with the government and file quarterly reports detailing such activity. It would cover groups that spend as little as $100,000 in a three-month period on grass-roots campaigns — an amount that could easily be exceeded by a couple of full-page newspaper ads, or in any small campaign aimed at stirring up public awareness in even a handful of districts in anticipation of a vote in Congress.
We represent two organizations that take diametrically opposed positions on nearly all of the legal issues surrounding abortion and assisted suicide. But we agree on this much: Grass-roots citizens do not need any “protection” from those who urge them to contact their elected Representatives.
Moreover, it is actively dangerous to democracy to allow incumbent officeholders to assert regulatory authority over such activity. Once that line is crossed, regardless of the specific scope of the original regulation, it will lead to endless interference by politicians and government agencies with the exercise of core rights protected by the First Amendment — the right to free speech and the right to petition government officials.