Lobby Reform Bill Would Stifle Free Speech, Say Advocacy Groups

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:32 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Railing against the lobbying reform bill scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, several conservative groups say the bill will stifle the free speech rights of grassroots organizations.

A similar bill was introduced last year but did not pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reintroduced the legislation on Jan. 8.

"Now that the new Congress is underway, we need to get down to business and show Americans that we are responding to their call for change," said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), who introduced the 2006 bill.

"We now have the opportunity to give the American people what they deserve and demanded in November - real ethics and lobbying reform that holds their elected officials to the highest ethical standards," he said.

But many take issue with section 220 of the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, which requires "disclosure of paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying."

"Section 220 is a direct assault on the first amendment and the right of citizens to freely petition their government for a redress of grievances," said Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, in a statement.

"This legislation will place onerous reporting requirements on individuals and organizations that lobby our national leaders on issues of importance to them. And, it will impose draconian fines - including potential criminal penalties - for failure to obey these new lobby restrictions," Sheldon added.

He noted that the bill would "target any organization with more than 500 supporters or if a communication reaches 500 or more individuals. Those affected include every blogger, every church, every non-profit or any group that uses direct mail, telephone calls, newspaper or print ads, paid organizers, radio and TV ads and Internet communications."

According to Sheldon, the reporting requirements would place "incredible financial and time burdens on grassroots groups."

"This cleverly-written section doesn't directly assault free speech, but it creates a climate of fear that chills free speech," he said. "The curious thing about this legislation is that it exempts labor unions, corporations and even foreign companies from these reporting requirements. Yet, these are the entities that are most likely to engage in unethical lobbying activities - not small grassroots groups."

According to the conservative advocacy group, the Free Speech Coalition, the bill "would target and restrict the First Amendment rights of citizens on an unprecedented and needless basis."

"There is no correlation between the fundamental rights being targeted by this and similar bills and the real ethics and corruption problems in Washington," the group said, adding that the bill "would only further corruption, not reduce it."

But Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group started by former Green Party presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, said the conservative groups' concerns are "misplaced."

"The Senate should pass a sorely needed disclosure requirement for organizations and their lobbyists as part of the lobbying and ethics reform package," Nader's group said.

Such a move is especially important in exposing powerful special interest groups masquerading as grassroots organizations, which Public Citizen labeled "Astroturf" groups.

"These organizations represent themselves as grassroots entities but in reality are funded by wealthy corporate interests and are therefore able to spend millions on ads about controversial legislature measures," according to Public Citizen.

"Under current law, there are no disclosure requirements to shine light on Astroturf campaigns, even when they identify specific pending legislation and urge members of the public to contact Congress," Public Citizen explained.

"Astroturf groups carry out campaigns on some of the highest-stakes issues of our day, persuading Americans to pressure legislators to support industry-backed positions on issues such as national energy policy, the estate tax and Medicare prescription drug legislation," the group added.

The lobbying reform proposal "would shine sunlight on who is paying, and how much, to influence legislation on Capitol Hill," Public Citizen asserted.

"The disclosure requirement affects only those corporations and large organizations that spend substantial sums on direct mail and television and radio campaigns to encourage the general public (rather than a group's members) to contact government officials to support or oppose pending legislation," the group said.

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