Pelosi's Liberal Ally Defends Ethics Bill Targeting Grassroots Communication

The liberal special-interest group that helped Nancy Pelosi draft the ethics bill she will present as her first official act as House speaker maintains it is necessary to regulate grassroots communications in order to protect voters from “misleading messages” and “direct mail lobbying blitzes.”

As I reported last week, The California Democrat’s legislation changes the legal definition of “grassroots lobbying” and requires any “paid efforts” made to encourage 500 or more members of the general public to contact their elected representatives to file a quarterly report with detailed information about their organization to the government.

Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nadar, takes credit for writing the new bill. It is closely modeled after Pelosi’s Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2006.

A group of conservative leaders, organized by the Free Speech Coalition, called on Public Citizen to renounce its efforts to regulate free speech in a December 14 letter that was signed by James Bopp of the James Madison Center, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation, Richard Viguerie of and many others.

It said, “The registration and quarterly reporting of grassroots communications to the public that you support are a frontal attack on the First Amendment. … The bill also would impose penalties on those who exercise their basic First Amendment rights but who do not register with Congress. Public Citizen’s approach merely centralizes even more power in Washington, and gives advantage to big-spending special interests over real citizen associations who may already be strapped for funds.”

In a response letter, Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook said, “It does not in way [sic] infringe upon the First Amendment for the public to know the identity of a speaker in the marketplace of ideas, given the specificity of the disclosures that are required and the precondition that disclosure pertains only to identified and pending legislation in Congress.”

She also insinuated the signers were only speaking out of self-interest. She wrote, “Apparently, your coalition is disturbed by the idea that financiers or large-scale efforts to influence the general public in support of specific legislation should disclose who I spaying, and how much for those efforts. Public Citizen cannot agree that these efforts should remain shrouded in secrecy. We know that businesses and other wealthy special interest groups wage expensive lobbying drives while hiding in the shadows—using front groups and misleading messages to conceal that business groups are the deep pockets behind expensive television and radio ads and direct mail lobbying blitzes.”

Those opposed to Pelosi’s plan argue it will burden grassroots organizations by forcing them to allocate valuable time and money towards tracking information, preparing and filing the reports. The bill also makes exemptions for larger, organized groups who employ formal lobbyists, who don’t dominantly rely on public communication to get their messages out.

The bill defines “grassroots lobbying firms” as any organization that encourages 500 or more members of the general public to contact Congress and being paid by one or more clients to engage in “paid efforts” to “stimulate grassroots lobbying on behalf of those clients.”

Those groups must file a report to the government on a quarterly basis that contains detailed information about their organization. The required report she referred to must include identification of the organization’s expenditures, the issues focused on and the members of Congress and other federal officials who are the subject of the advocacy efforts. A separate report would be required for each policy issue the group is active on.

If an organization failed to provide this information, severe financial penalties would be incurred that could be as high as $100,000.

For example, if anti-tax organization receives donations to mobilize the public against a specific tax hike and the anti-tax organization blasts an e-mail alert to 500 people or more asking them to contact their elected officials on this issue, the anti-tax group could be considered a “grassroots lobbying firm.”

The bill does not yet define what a “paid effort” is constituted by.

Also, if the grassroots organization employs any person or entity to communicate with the general public that receives, spends or agrees to spend $50,000 or more in three months, that person or entity must register and report their activities to the government, in a way similar to what formal lobbyists do.

In addition, Pelosi’s bill will not grant low-dollar exemptions that are currently available to lobbyists who personally lobby members of Congress, indirectly targeting organizations that do not employ lobbyists.

Meanwhile, large corporations are exempt from these reporting requirements. Under the bill, communications aimed at an organization’s “members, employees, officers or shareholders” would be exempt from the reporting requirement. That would effectively exempt most corporations, trade associations and unions from the reporting requirements—like the AFL-CIO, and other organized groups.

A clear definition of how a “member” would be defined under Pelosi-Claybrook has not yet been offered.