For all the vaunted political power of their “netroots” internet organizing and fundraising, liberal Democrats (if you will forgive me that one redundancy) are intimidated by conservatives’ ability to organize local “grassroots” people around conservatives causes and principles. And now, while they pretend to “reform” lobbying laws they are — as I showed in Part 1 — legislating in the dark to “reform” us out of our First Amendment rights. Protecting the First Amendment rights of citizens should not be a political party issue.
“Government watchdogs,” such as Public Citizen, Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21, the principal advocates of the so-called “grassroots” legislation, share more than an anti-conservative ideology. They want taxpayer-financed elections, and demonstrate a clear bent towards more government regulation of, well, nearly everything.
They know that limiting the First Amendment rights of grassroots citizen activists is an important first step in completing a broader anti-populist agenda of more centralized power in Washington. They know that communications to the general public, which is what they want to regulate, are not “lobbying” at all but speech essential to democracy and thus protected by the First Amendment.
In U.S. v. Rumely, 345 U.S. 41 (1953), the Supreme Court invalidated that part of the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, the majority opinion limited itself to preventing Congress from enforcing provisions of that law regulating communications to the public. A scathing concurring opinion written by Justices Douglas and Black said any such law regulating communications to the public under the guise of lobbying regulation violates the freedom of the press, and must be declared unconstitutional.
When Congress passed the existing Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, it expressly recognized that regulating grassroots communications would be unconstitutional, even going so far as to expressly incorporate three First Amendment protections into the lobbying statute. But since then, throughout the Clinton years and both Bush presidential campaigns, conservatives have managed to organize citizen activists to effective voting and lobbying forces. Democratic activists want that stopeed.
They claimed they wanted to expose who’s funding political communications, although through statutory exemptions hundreds of millions in financing by corporations, labor unions, Democratic-oriented groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons and billionaires such as George Soros would go undisclosed.
From what we know about the legislation — which isn’t as much as we should, because the Dems are keeping it secret — the grassroots legislation would subject some, but not all, grassroots organizations that communicate to the general public in the same manner as lobbyists. For the first time in history, grassroots critics of Congress would be required to report quarterly to Congress. Taking into account the the civil and criminal penalties for registration errors and failures, the legislation has been described as what would be one of the most significant violations of free exercise of religion and freedom of speech in our nation’s history.
The legislation, though, helps the rich and powerful. Billionaires such as Soros would be free to spend hundreds of millions of undisclosed, tax-deductible dollars on influencing public policy, yet not report any of those expenditures. Corporations, labor unions and large, wealthy membership organizations are given a loophole to communicate with shareholders, officers, employees and members, yet not report.
In 2005, the ten biggest lobbying spenders collectively spent $207,222,692 on direct lobbying, according to OpenSecrets.org. Each of these entities would be able to spend unlimited money mobilizing tens of millions of their associates to support or oppose legislation, other policy initiatives and judicial nominees. The grassroots legislation would purposefully allow those expenditures to go undisclosed, proving false claims by proponents that they want “sunshine” on the money in politics.
The disparate impact of the grassroots legislation may be demonstrated by a simple example. AARP, the single largest membership nonprofit organization in America with 38 million members, was second in direct lobbying expenditures in 2005 with $36,302,064. If AARP were to spend just fifty cents per contact (which is a low amount) on as few as 12 legislative issue alerts per year (again, a conservative number), AARP would spend $228 million annually (38 million members times fifty cents times 12) without reporting any of those expenditures. It’s all in the Dem’s network, which they will protect from disclosure.
A January 2007 by the president of Democracy 21, Fred Wertheimer, and its legal counsel and board member, Donald Simon, denies Democracy 21 is helping violate the First Amendment for genuine citizen-supported causes and creating a legislative “loophole” favoring corporations, labor unions and large, wealthy membership organizations such as AARP. On its website, Democracy 21 claims that the grassroots legislation is targeted only at “paid attempts ‘to influence the general public.’” It should say, instead, all “conservative or Republican-connected” attempts.
The net result would be legislation that controls what information about Washington is reported to citizens, and which “types” of citizens will be engaging in grassroots lobbying. It’s precisely the sort of government interference in free speech that the First Amendment is meant to prevent.
A flow chart of the staff and board members of the Washington advocates for the legislation would show similar ties to the Democratic Party, heavy representation by corporate and labor union lobbyists, tax lawyers who know how to navigate the tax laws for lobbying by tax-exempt organizations, and even overlapping members.
Trevor Potter of Campaign Legal Center, who helped make the Federal Election Commission more abusive of First Amendment rights, and Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen are other lawyer/lobbyists who insist on more disclosure, although it’s still not clear who’s financing their lobbying efforts.
The DNC, which itself urges its supporters to engage in grassroots lobbying by issuing the policy alerts, supports the grassroots legislation. With no Republican or even any genuine liberal grassroots supporters of the legislation, this appears to be a purely Democratic Party initiative.
The Washington network advocating for the grassroots legislation is not that big. It is, however, a well-designed, well-lawyered political power play by some of the best Democratic lawyer/lobbyists. It is Machiavelli-brilliant, but its aim is to violate what the First Amendment was all about: citizens speaking, thinking and worshipping privately among themselves, and collectively expressing their will or discontent to their elected officials. Republicans should do everything they can to defeat this bill when it comes to light. If they fail, the president must veto it.