In a post earlier today, I discussed a case where an astroturf group is attempting to stir up popular objection to a clause in a bill before the Senate that mandates disclosure of this type of lobbying activity. In a comment to a post over at Bora's blog, MattXIV raises a point that requires a more detailed response than I could make in a comment there:
The point of restricting direct lobbying of congress is to prevent quid-pro-quos being worked out between lobbyist and congresspeople. I don't see how attempts to influence the views of individuals independent of direct lobbying of congress would raise the same possibilities of corruption by officials. It seems like an effort to increase the relative importance of direct lobbying, and hence the opportunities to solicit campaign contributions that congress has. If some group is going to spend money trying to get policy changed, I'd rather they did it via a PR campaign to convince people to write letters to the editor than by buying expensive lunches (and maybe some under the table extras) for congresscritters.
The anti-astroturfing portion of the legislation does little to address the possibility of people influencing legislation by buying congresscritters. What it does do is ensure that Congress (and the public) can find out who is spending large sums of money in an attempt to influence legislation. It's a needed piece of legislation, mostly because of the grossly dishonest way that many of these groups operate.
Here's a hypothetical example of how it works:
A group - let's say the petroleum industry - is concerned by legislation - let's say a proposed carbon dioxide emissions tax. They really don't like the idea, but they don't want to be painted as anti-environment any more than necessary (bad for business) and they don't want to scare people (also bad for business). They want to influence public sentiment and stir up grassroots oposition to the legislation, but they don't want to be seen doing so. As things stand, that's insanely easy to do.
The petroleum industry hires a PR firm, and pays them to set up a "grassroots" organization - "Smalltowners Helping Improve Tomorrow" The petroleum industry then donates a sizeable chunk of money to the new organization. The organization, which at this point consists of the hired PR firm's people and the petroleum industry's money, then turns around and hires the same PR firm to put together a campaign opposing the legislation. Two days later, you're watching a commercial that says, "if the new "tax on survival" law is passed, power prices will skyrocket. Businesses will close. You will be unemployed, and your children will starve. Paid for by Smalltowners Helping Improve Tomorrow."
The folks that pay to have astroturf groups set up might not be directly lobbying Congress, but they are spending lots of money to try and influence legislation - and that is lobbying. The proposed law does not in any way prevent them from continuing to do so. It does not in any way restrict what they can and cannot say. What it does do is mandate disclosure. Anyone who spends lots of money to try and influence the grassroots opinion of a piece of legislation will need to tell Congress that they are doing so.
Disclosure, in this instance, does not restrict freedom of expression. What it does do is restrict the ability to secretly pay to influence public opinion about federal legislation. And that is a good idea.