Republicans Target Grassroots Lobbying Provision in Senate Ethics Bill

Although it’s validating for conservatives to publicly shame Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.) for exempting American Samoa from the federal minimum wage and to deride Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) for blocking real earmark reform, the Democrats’ ethics package still contains a deadly provision that would rob grassroots organizations of their ability to communicate freely with the public.

The Senate version of the bill, S. 1, contains a measure that would require grassroots organizations to report communications made to 500 or more people if that message encourages them to contact their elected representatives on a specific policy issue on a quarterly basis.

The legislation defines this communication as a type of “lobbying”—or more specifically, “efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying.” Democrat supporters of the bill defend the provision, arguing the money that enables special-interest groups to communicate with the public should be disclosed just as lobbyists who communicate with members of Congress must disclose their contacts. (The difference, however, is that this new rule wouldn’t give grassroots organizations the low-dollar exemption formal lobbyists receive.)

Republican Opposition

Last Thursday, Republican Sen. Robert Bennett (Utah) offered an amendment to strike the grassroots lobbying provision from the bill. His amendment is co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican Senators James Inhofe (Okla.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and John Cornyn (Tex.).

Bennett could also pick up support from the six Republicans who voted against the measure in the bill’s markup in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. They included Senators Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Pete Domenici (N.M.) and John Warner (Va.).

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson helped stir up opposition to the provision on his January 10 radio program. Other conservative organizations, such as Concerned Women for American and the Family Research Council, have blasted e-mails asking supporters to help them kill the provision.

But in order for Bennett’s amendment to pass, Dick Dingman of the Free Speech Coalition said it needs support from a Democrat senator and an outside liberal organization.

In an e-mail sent Friday that asked supporters to contact Congress, Dingman said, “I can assure you that 90 percent of House and Senate members have NO UNDERSTANDING of the grassroots provisions being proposed. With everyone’s attention focused on the euphoria of a new Congress, and many members preoccupied with such mundane matters as selecting an office, getting furniture, hiring staff, finding housing, etc., they have yet to begin the task of seriously evaluating new legislation.”