What: All Issues : Government Checks on Corporate Power : S. 1. (Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007), Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) amendment to strike a provision that would require "grassroots" lobbying organizations to disclose fundraising information/On approval of the amendment (2007 senate Roll Call 17)
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S. 1. (Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007), Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) amendment to strike a provision that would require "grassroots" lobbying organizations to disclose fundraising information/On approval of the amendment
senate Roll Call 17     Jan 18, 2007
Progressive Position:
Nay
Progressive Result:
Loss
Qualifies as polarizing?
Yes
Is this vote crucial?
Yes

This vote dealt with whether "grassroots" lobbying organizations would have to be subjected to similar disclosure requirements as other advocacy groups. Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) proposed an amendment to strike a provision in a bill to overhaul Congressional lobbying and ethics rules that would have subjected such grassroots groups to report on their donors and register as lobbyists.

The underlying bill would prohibit the acceptance of gifts and free meals by Senators and staff, extend the time period before former Senators can become lobbyists and outlaw lobbyist-funded travel.

The debate over the grassroots lobbying provision centered on the definition of "grassroots" lobbying. Critics of such organizations have said that they are little more than front organizations for large, moneyed interests who use "grassroots" lobbying as a way to fund unregulated advocacy campaigns attempting to sway lawmakers and policy. For this reason they have earned the nickname "Astroturf" lobbyists.

In the words of Bennett, the theoretical definition of an Astroturf lobbyist is: "someone who gets paid, presumably by a large organization - a labor union, a corporation, a trade association, whatever it might be - to pretend there is a groundswell of grassroots support or opposition for or to a particular piece of legislation. So this hired gun, if you will, sends out letters, e-mails, faxes - whatever it is - to stir up phony grassroots support for or against the particular piece of legislation."

Bennett agreed that such groups exist, but he disagreed that something should be done about them. Requiring such groups to report on who pays their bills and go through all of the regulations required by the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act theoretically may make sense, Bennett said, but added that it would be "pernicious in its effect" and "cut to the heart of the constitutional right of Americans to petition the Government for redress of their grievances."

Groups as diverse as the National Right to Life Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) opposed the provision and supported Bennett's amendment to strike it.

"Someone who gets his neighbors together and says, let's all write our Congressmen on this issue, and then spends some money doing it, under this provision becomes a paid lobbyist, and if he does not report and register would be fined $200,000 for having done that," Bennett said. "The ACLU does not overstate the case when they say this would have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected activity."

Bennett said it was quite chilling that the "legislation says that grassroots lobbying is defined as members of the general public communicating with their Congressman or encouraging others to do the same," activity that would be subject to regulation.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) disagreed with Bennett's assessment. The language in the bill, she said, "makes clear that efforts by an organization to contact its own members as part of a grassroots lobbying campaign are not covered and are unaffected by these provisions unless some outside group paid the organization to do so."

Furthermore, she added that the bill requires a $50,000 quarterly threshold as a precondition of registration. "This means that small and truly local efforts are not covered," and nonprofits would continue to be able to lobby under current tax law, she added.

"The provisions would create a balanced playing field by opposing a sham grassroots lobbying operation while protecting legitimate grassroots lobbying organizations," Feinstein continued.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) framed the debate this way: "This bill calls for transparency, but puts no limits on activity." He urged his colleagues to "remove the cloak obscuring so-called stealth lobbying campaigns," which "frequently have innocent-sounding names that give the impression they are promoting positive mom-and-pop, apple pie goals. But, in fact, they lobby on a range of issues that could never be identified by the name of the coalition."

This was the second amendment offered by Bennett relating to "grassroots" lobbying. The first modified the provision in the legislation that would have outlawed all privately funded travel for lawmakers if the sponsoring organization was in any way affiliated with a lobbyist. Bennett's change allowed "grassroots" educational organizations to pay for fact-finding trips as long as no lobbyist was in attendance. (See Roll Call 14.)

In the end, Bennett was able to find a majority to support his effort to allow so-called grassroots lobbying organizations to continue operating without registration or disclosure requirements. By a vote of 55-43, the Senate voted to strike a provision that would have required such groups to disclose their donors and register as lobbyists. Seven Democrats joined all 48 Republicans present in voting for Bennett's amendment. Thus, legislation to overhaul lobbying and ethics rules for Senators and their staffs went forward without language requiring "grassroots" lobbying organizations to file under the Federal Lobbying Disclosure Act.

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