As part of a lobbying campaign to persuade Congress to regulate the fees that merchants pay when customers use debit cards, the firm DCI Group scheduled hundreds of Hill meetings and generated more than 31,500 constituent calls to congressional offices.
Working for its then-client the Retail Industry Leaders Association, DCI Group also “completed 1,606 individualized contacts in target [Hill] offices from small business owners,” according to a promotional “case study” that the firm prepared to pitch its services to another client.
The relationship between DCI and the retailers, which resulted in language favorable to the industry being written into law, doesn’t appear anywhere in congressional lobbying records.
The one-page memo offers a glimpse into the world of paid grass-roots organizing that’s hidden from public view because the work is not covered by the Lobbying Disclosure Act, even though it is part of an effort to influence legislation and public policy. Traditional lobbyists must report their clients and provide an estimate of their fees.
DCI Group represented RILA from 2009 to 2011, according to a RILA spokesman, but it did not file a lobbying disclosure report with Congress because the work fell outside the scope of the law.
“The law turns on those who actually make lobbying contacts,” said William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper who specializes in lobbying ethics law. “If no individual qualifies as a lobbyist because no individual has made lobbying contacts, then the firm would not be under any obligation to register and report.”
Grass-roots firms can help identify and mobilize constituents to contact their members of Congress. They work to secure meetings with lawmakers and their aides and coach activists on what to say and how best to present their case. They often do not attend the meetings with lawmakers, but grass-roots professionals do engage in media outreach, placing op-eds in publications and using advertising, social media and online tools to gin up voters on specific issues.
When Congress debated lobbying revisions in 2006 and 2007, members such as Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., pushed for paid grass-roots work to be included in public filings. “These are coordinated efforts costing tens of thousands of dollars, which on their face are part of professional lobbying efforts,” Levin said at the time.
The DCI memo spells out such activities by the numbers. The case study, a copy of which was obtained by CQ Roll Call, was included in a packet of materials that DCI prepared to solicit business from the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. DCI Group does not dispute its authenticity. Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for the clean coal group, said DCI Group represents its interests and is in the running “along with some other folks” to retain the grass-roots contract. She added that the coal group is “in the midst” of the selection process.
RILA’s members include big retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Home Depot Inc. and Safeway Inc. DCI Group helped RILA find and activate owners of small businesses who said the debit card interchange fees also hurt their bottom lines. That added a Main Street dimension to a battle pitting merchants against banks and credit card companies such as Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc.
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