Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Astroturf Ruins it for the Rest of Us!

There's a debate going on in Washington, DC (and has been for years) on whether so-called "grassroots lobbying" efforts should be included in lobbying disclosure regulations. This issue has come up again most recently in the context of organized grassroots campaigns, where an organization hires a company to generate grassroots communications into an elected official's office (full disclosure: our firm frequently helps organizations run these kinds of campaigns).

Sometimes a bad actor (or two or two hundred), generates grassroots communications that are less than genuine -- and gets caught, as noted in this Sunlight Foundation blog post. There's no way to defend this practice, of course. The whole POINT of grassroots organization is to inspire the delivery of quality, relevant and, most important, personalized communications from constituents. It is NOT to send fake communications in to a legislator's office. Not only is that unethical, it's not even effective. So why do it?

However, I do not think that the fact that there are some bad actors should automatically mean that anyone who does any grassroots lobbying should register. Naturally I would think that: it's in my firm's best interest not to have to go through the hassle of registering.

But, it's more than that. Believe it or not, I think that the vast majority of organized grassroots campaigns have honorable intentions. In most cases, their main goal is to give citizens the tools they need to connect in a meaningful way with their elected officials on issues those citizens truly care about. This, to me, is a practice that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

The problem with requiring some sort of registration for these types of campaigns is that if the net is cast too wide, such a requirement might limit true citizen participation in the political process. Imagine the citizen advocate who wants to rally people in his or her neighborhood to argue for (or against) health care reform. They decide to show people what to do, set up a "do it yourself" website and make some flyers to encourage people to attend townhall meetings. Should that person be required to register as a "grassroots lobbyist?" What if they take small donations of $20 bucks per person to defray expenses? Or hire a web consultant to help them put together a website? Would other people be less likely to participate if they thought they had to register with a government entity?

Sure, there are a lot of big players out there, some of whom are spending millions of dollars on these efforts (not with us, unfortunately :)). But how do you draft language that gets at just the "big guys" and leaves the smaller, citizen-based coalitions alone?

It seems to me that the danger of limiting citizen participation is much higher when it comes to registration requirements for grassroots campaigns. Therefore, it makes significantly more sense to tread much more lightly, to combat bad actors where they are found, and to redouble our efforts to encourage open and honest citizen to government communication.


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