PUBLIC INFORMATION — Lobbyists have to register their activities and expenses with Congress,
but well-funded "grassroots" firms don’t — a fact that frustrates
watchdog groups, reports Jim Snyder for The Hill.

Those groups that use increasingly sophisticated tools to gin up public outrage or support for an issue have to disclose little about their activities. That means hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to influence the political process goes unreported.

For the watchdogs that lost the fight two years ago for more disclosure, the lack of transparency in grassroots advocacy has been underscored anew by the difficulty in determining if the outrage over healthcare reform expressed in recent town hall meetings is genuine constituent anger or manufactured angst with the help of businesses and interest groups whose bottom lines could be hurt by the reform push.

“This goes below the radar. We don’t know who is behind it or who pays for it. We don’t know how much of it is happening,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that had lobbied for more disclosure in 2007.

Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, which also supported the reform push, said forcing a company or trade group to step out of the shadows would be “utterly unhelpful” in attracting support for a campaign that is supposed to be a spontaneous groundswell of citizen activism.

Malloy said business groups worried the effort to “pull back the curtain” would make their grassroots efforts much less effective.

But it wasn’t just business interests that fought to keep the curtain closed on what critics deride as “AstroTurf” lobbying, because the support or opposition they stir is fake, as Malloy acknowledges.

Groups such as the National Right to Life National Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the disclosure rules, arguing they would have a chilling effect on civic participation and violate constitutional free speech protections.

Average citizens who just wanted to express their opinions to their political representative could be required to register with Congress and face a stiff new $200,000 fine if they failed to do so, some interest groups charged when the additional disclosure rules were being considered.

Supporters tried to maintain momentum by arguing that scenarios like that one didn’t reflect the disclosure provision that ended up in the bill.

After a few rewrites, watchdog groups and their backers on Capitol Hill thought they crafted language that would survive a court challenge. One late iteration limited disclosure to those campaigns funded by groups or individuals already registered as lobbyists and on professional grassroots advocacy firms.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), backers of the disclosure provision, said they were targeting “AstroTurf” campaigns in which big-money interests use phone banks, computerized fax systems, TV and radio advertisements and direct-mail campaigns to create the impression of public support.

Their provision would have triggered reporting requirements only if an entity had spent $25,000 or more a quarter on the grassroots campaign.

Groups like the National Rifle Association would not have to report the communications they sent to their own members. Malloy said a late House version of the legislation would have exempted nonprofit groups like the NRA altogether, even if they paid for grassroots campaigns that went beyond their membership base.

On the floor, Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) led the fight to strike the language from the reform bill. Quoting extensively from an ACLU letter sharply critical of the disclosure provision, Bennett argued that the provision would be “pernicious in its effect” and would “cut to the heart of the constitutional right of Americans to petition the government for redress of their grievances.”

The Senate supported an amendment Bennett offered to strike the provision. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which required lobbyists to provide more detail about their activities and increased the penalties for violating disclosure rules, eventually passed Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Given the limited disclosure rules, it is impossible to estimate just how much is spent on grassroots advocacy, real or fake. Some observers believe it could be much larger than the $3 billion direct lobbying business.

It seems certain, though, that the grassroots advocacy business is booming. Inside the Beltway, lobbyists and public advocacy firms say that the success the Obama campaign had in turning citizens who hadn’t been particularly politically active into campaign donors has showcased the opportunity to build an army of support relatively quickly.