Via Bora, I found a somewhat alarming article. Apparently, it's being claimed, the Lobbying reform law currently in the senate will require bloggers (among other people) to register and file quarterly reports with congress or face possible jail time, "the same as the big K Street lobbyists." Calling it "the most expansive intrusion on First Amendment rights ever," the article in question hopes to stir a grassroots swell of oposition to this particular portion of the law.
Being a blogger, this naturally caught my interest, so I went and looked at the law. Then at the source of the article. It would seem that someone - a right-wing activist named Richard A. Viguerie, to be specific - is trying to play bloggers. Here's the real story:
Let's start by looking at the exact claims made in the article:
"Section 220 of S. 1, the lobbying reform bill currently before the
Senate, would require grassroots causes, even bloggers, who communicate to
500 or more members of the public on policy matters, to register and report
quarterly to Congress the same as the big K Street lobbyists. Section 220
would amend existing lobbying reporting law by creating the most expansive
intrusion on First Amendment rights ever. For the first time in history,
critics of Congress will need to register and report with Congress itself.
"The bill would require reporting of 'paid efforts to stimulate
grassroots lobbying,' but defines 'paid' merely as communications to 500 or
more members of the public, with no other qualifiers.
Now, let's look at section 220 of S. 1. The section is pretty long, so I'm going to try and cut it to only the relevant points. The entire law is available online, and you should read it for yourself rather than taking my (or anyone else's) word for it.
SEC. 220. DISCLOSURE OF PAID EFFORTS TO STIMULATE GRASSROOTS LOBBYING.
(a) Definitions- Section 3 of the Act (2 U.S.C. 1602) is amended--
(1) in paragraph (7), by adding at the end of the following: `Lobbying activities include paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying, but do not include grassroots lobbying.'; and
(2) by adding at the end of the following:
`(17) GRASSROOTS LOBBYING- The term `grassroots lobbying' means the voluntary efforts of members of the general public to communicate their own views on an issue to Federal officials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same.
`(18) PAID EFFORTS TO STIMULATE GRASSROOTS LOBBYING-
`(A) IN GENERAL- The term `paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying' means any paid attempt in support of lobbying contacts on behalf of a client to influence the general public or segments thereof to contact one or more covered legislative or executive branch officials (or Congress as a whole) to urge such officials (or Congress) to take specific action with respect to a matter described in section 3(8)(A), except that such term does not include any communications by an entity directed to its members, employees, officers, or shareholders.
The passage in boldface is highlighted because it directly contradicts the alarmist article's claim that the bill, "defines 'paid' merely as communications to 500 or more members of the public, with no other qualifiers." It clearly indicates that "paid" means "paid by a client." That point is further clarified later on in the bill:
`(19) GRASSROOTS LOBBYING FIRM- The term `grassroots lobbying firm' means a person or entity that--
`(A) is retained by 1 or more clients to engage in paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying on behalf of such clients; and
`(B) receives income of, or spends or agrees to spend, an aggregate of $25,000 or more for such efforts in any quarterly period.'.
(b) Registration- Section 4(a) of the Act (2 U.S.C. 1603(a)) is amended--
(2) by inserting after paragraph (3) the following:
`(4) FILING BY GRASSROOTS LOBBYING FIRMS- Not later than 45 days after a grassroots lobbying firm first is retained by a client to engage in paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying, such grassroots lobbying firm shall register with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives.'.
Not only does that further clarify the point that this law is targeting people who are specifically paid to stir up grassroots support for a cause, it also shows that the only people who are required to file reports are those who have been paid quite a bit of money to stir up 'grassroots' support or opposition to a bill.
There's a word for paid efforts to stir up grassroots support, by the way. It's called astroturfing, and it's a common tactic that's used by professional lobbying groups - start a "not-for-profit" group that can buy advertising to advance the position they want without revealing who is really paying for the efforts.
Contrast that with the alarmist press release:
"Section 220 of S. 1, the lobbying reform bill currently before the Senate, would require grassroots causes, even bloggers, who communicate to 500 or more members of the public on policy matters, to register and report quarterly to Congress the same as the big K Street lobbyists.
If you are using any type of equipment to detect irony, shut it off and put it away now, because it's time to look at who wrote the alarmist article.
It's pretty clear that this is a law that is intended to make it easier to find out when people are astroturfing - when they are paying someone to try and stir up grassroots support for something, usually by creating a "grassroots organization" to try and influence the legislation.
Now let's look more closely at the press release that's caused all of the fuss. It was issued by a "grassroots organization" called GrassrootsFreedom.com. This organization has, in the 14 days since the bill was introduced, been started up, got the website up, got the email notification list up, got at least the one press release out, and apparently had a press conference scheduled at one point in time. Suspicious yet?
If you are, good, because the suspicions certainly appear to be pretty valid. The founder of GrassrootsFreedom is Richard A. Viguerie. Mr. Viguerie is a long-time conservative activist who - wait for it - "pioneered political use of computerized mass mail," and has raised funds for a long list of conservative causes during his long career.
That's right. It looks like the alarmist (and dishonest) "Congress is going to lock up bloggers" press release was written by an astroturf group, in an attempt to influence bloggers to oppose (at the grassroots level) a piece of legislation designed to make it harder to use astroturf groups to influence legislation.
Gotta love it.