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December 28, 2006
Grassroots Lobbying 'Disclosure'?

Mark Tapscott and Brad Smith both warn about a new initiative from Nancy Pelosi to require disclosure of grassroots "lobbyists" in the next Congress. Instead of disclosing contributors, it appears that Pelosi wants the names of the individuals involved. Smith has written several essays warning that disclosure, in this case, can chill dissent:

In proposals to disclose grassroots lobbying, we are witnessing two canons of political law on an apparent collision course: that government corruption is cured by disclosure; and that the right of individuals to speak and associate freely depends upon their ability to do so anonymously. But the conflict is a false one — a byproduct of fuzzy thinking — because each canon, when properly applied, protects citizens from abusive lawmakers. Disclosure of campaign contributions protects citizens from lawmakers who can confer benefits on large contributors (and pain on opponents) through legislation. Disclosure of true lobbying activities, that is, consultants engaged in face-to-face meetings with lawmakers, protects citizens in a similar manner. Because disclosure is beneficial in these contexts, people presume it is always harmless. This is wrong. The right to speak anonymously with fellow citizens about issues or pending legislation also protects citizens by reducing lawmaker ability to visit retribution on those who oppose his policy preferences. ...

Disclosure is not always a good thing. The rationale for requiring disclosure of contributions to candidate campaigns, and disclosure of direct lobbying activity, is the same for protecting anonymity in the discussion of policy issues: to protect citizens from retribution by abusive officeholders. History demonstrates that while such retribution may be uncommon, it is real. Indeed, even today we read of a Texas prosecutor who has subpoenaed donor records for a group after the group ran grassroots lobbying ads that took a position contrary to that of the prosecutor.

Mark continues the thought:

Smith also warns, as I have in this space and in many other forums over th e years, mere registration is never the only thing the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington want. After registration will come regulation of content, followed by prohibition of some kinds of content officeholders find threatening.

Once again, it seems we have the burden of cleaning up corruption placed on those who would use the right to free political speech to accomplish it. I agree that there is a difference between registering lobbyists who directly contact legislators and registering citizens who band together in affiliations for the purposes of engaging in political speech, but I can also see that there will be some gray areas between the two. After all, lobbyists represent groups of citizens who band together for political purposes, but the critical difference is the direct interaction with legislators and the kinds of favors that pass when that occurs.

The burden of disclosure belongs on the politicians. It will be enough to know the sources of their contributions and their favors without having to expose everyone who works in true grassroots organizations. I'm not sure I buy into the doomsday scenarios painted by Smith; after all, anyone making any political contributions already has to "register" with their legal name and full address, so anonymity has mostly gone by the wayside. Let's focus on getting the politicians to fully and immediately disclose their contributions and their earmarks first, and then see where else we need to work to reduce or eliminate corruption. The Senate would be a good place to start.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 28, 2006 5:28 PM

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