Grass-roots groups qual­ify as lob­by­ists un­der ethics bill

Demo­cratic mea­sure im­per­iled by pro­ce­dural block

The Washington Times Weekly - - From Page One - By S.A. Miller

The ethics bill be­fore the Se­nate not only cracks down on law­mak­ers, but also sub­jects po­lit­i­cally ac­tive min­is­ters and neigh­bor­hood groups to the same rules as K Street lob­by­ists.

Un­der the leg­is­la­tion, grass­roots or­ga­ni­za­tions that at­tempt to “in­flu­ence the gen­eral pub­lic” to con­tact mem­bers of Congress would have to reg­is­ter as lob­by­ists and file fi­nan­cial re­ports — or face a $200,000 fine. The re­quire­ments could ap­ply to a preacher who goes on TV or ra­dio and tells lis­ten­ers to call their con­gress­man in sup­port of a par­tic­u­lar is­sue, such as a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment against ho­mo­sex­ual “mar­riage.”

But late on Jan. 17, in the ses­sion’s first dis­play of the mus­cle that even a mi­nor­ity party has in the up­per cham­ber, the en­tire ethics bill was jeop­ar­dized when Repub­li­cans blocked a pro­ce­dural vote. Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, Ne­vada Demo­crat, had re­fused to al­low a vote on an amend­ment to give the pres­i­dent author­ity to strip spend­ing “ear­marks” from bills.

Repub­li­cans re­tal­i­ated by vot­ing in near-lock­step against a par­lia­men­tary mo­tion needed to vote on the en­tire bill. The mo­tion won a 51-46 ma­jor­ity, far short of the two-thirds ma­jor­ity needed. No ac­tion is now sched­uled on the bill, though ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the two par­ties con­tin­ued into the night.

The vote capped a day of squab­bling over the ethics bill, in which the Se­nate’s Demo­cratic lead­ers clashed re­peat­edly with Repub­li­cans on nu­mer­ous de­tails, start­ing with the mea­sure to broaden the scope of lob­by­ist rules. Demo­cratic back­ers of the mea­sure say it will ex­pose phony grass-roots or­ga­ni­za­tions, some­times called “astro­turf,” that front for monied spe­cial in­ter­ests.

“The prob­lem is th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions have hired guns paid by undis­closed spe­cial in­ter­est or­ga­ni­za­tions,” said Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat and chair­man of the Rules and Ad­min­is­tra­tion Com­mit­tee.

She said the pro­posal was “bona fide, help­ful and over­due.”

But is­sue groups span­ning the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum — from Na­tional Right to Life and Fo­cus on the Fam­ily to the League of Con­ser­va­tion Vot­ers and the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union — say the ex­panded def­i­ni­tion of lob­by­ist will im­peril cit­i­zens’ con­sti­tu­tional rights to free speech and to pe­ti­tion the gov­ern­ment.

“This bill goes way too far,” said Caro­line Fredrick­son, di­rec­tor of the ACLU’s Wash­ing­ton leg­isla­tive of­fice. “This gets at the cit­i­zen groups who are re­ally the ones mak­ing their voices heard about our democ­racy.”

An iden­ti­cal pro­posal has been in­tro­duced in the House.

The first Se­nate squab­ble stemmed from an amend­ment by Sen. Robert F. Ben­nett, Utah Repub­li­can, that would delete the pro­vi­sion on grass-roots lob­by­ing.

“This should be struck from the bill,” Mr. Ben­nett said. “I was taught in civics in high school that [con­tact­ing Congress mem­bers] was what we were sup­posed to do.”

The grass-roots pro­vi­sion would ex­empt unions and other or­ga­ni­za­tions that at­tempt to in­flu­ence only their mem­bers, share­hold­ers and em­ploy­ees. It also would ap­ply only to groups that col­lect or spend more than $25,000 in three months.

“I gather some groups are up­set,” said Sen. Joe Lieber­man, Con­necti­cut in­de­pen­dent who sup­ports the bill. “But it is re­ally aimed at at­tempts to in­flu­ence Congress by th­ese astro­turf groups.”

Mr. Lieber­man said the $25,000 thresh­old would pro­tect real grass-roots ac­tivists, an as­ser­tion that drew crit­i­cism from Jay Seku­low of the Amer­i­can Cen­ter for Law and Jus­tice.

“Some of the big churches spend more than that in a week,” said Mr. Seku­low, chief coun­sel for the con­ser­va­tive con­sti­tu­tional-law group. “We have a con­sti­tu­tion that gives us the free ex­er­cise of re­li­gion, and part of that is be­ing able to ad­dress the moral and re­li­gious val­ues of the day.”

The late pro­ce­dural block came over a pro­posal by Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hamp­shire Repub­li­can, to give the pres­i­dent the author­ity, with the ap­proval of Congress, to elim­i­nate in­di­vid­ual spend­ing items in broader-scope leg­is­la­tion.

“The new ma­jor­ity party has been very vo­cal about [. . . ] fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity and spend­ing re­straint,” Mr. Gregg said. “Yet it seems to be drag­ging its feet when it comes time to put those words into ac­tion.”

Democrats re­fused to al­low a vote, say­ing the amend­ment was not rel­e­vant to the ethics bill. Af­ter the Repub­li­can-backed pro­ce­dural vote, Ma­jor­ity Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illi­nois Demo­crat, said he hoped that “this is go­ing to be just a bump in the road.”

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