by Gary North
I write this as a former Capitol Hill staffer. I have been there, done that.
I am reporting on this matter because, if Democrats (and Trent Lott) in the United States Senate get their way, it may be illegal for me to say this or anything like this, beginning on January 1, 2008.
If you want to know what is the highest priority of the new Congress, don't watch TV. Don't listen to the posturing of politicians in high places regarding the war in Iraq, the safety of Americans from terror, and the plight of the poor. As Attorney General John Mitchell said, before he went to jail: "Watch what we do, not what we say."
I can tell you what the highest priority of Democrats in the United States Senate is. How do I know? Because the Senate has labeled the following piece of proposed legislation, Senate Bill S1. That's numero uno. The bill's title: "To provide greater transparency in the legislative process."
When you see a high-falutin title like this, you can be certain of one thing: Its promoters intend the opposite.
The proposed bill is long and detailed. It is not the product of some immediate national crisis. It is the product of many months of careful crafting in the shadows. It received no publicity, before or after it was submitted. The Democratic leadership in the Senate has entered this bill as its top priority.
WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
What is this bill all about? Simple: taking heat off of Congress.
From Congress's point of view, there is a growing problem. That problem is the Internet. It allows people to communicate with each other almost free of charge.
An email can be sent to a million people at little or no marginal cost. A mailing list becomes a tool of instant education and motivation.
All over the wired world, politicians are finding that every government leak gets to a large audience within hours. I call this the Drudge-Lewinsky factor.
Every audience has a hot button. Politicians today cannot pass any bill, short of a national emergency, in which they do not inevitably press some special-interest group's negative hot button.
If people on an email list are alerted to what the politicians are planning to do to them, they will in turn send an email, phone their representatives, or even — I am not making this up — sit down, write a letter of protest, put it in an envelope, stamp the envelope, and mail it to their political representative. (Yes, such things are still done. Or so I'm told.)
Worse, from the politicians' point of view, the Internet allows organizations to remind people on their mailing lists which politicians voted the wrong way. The subscribers would normally forget within six months, but not if they keep getting reminded.
The Internet makes it cheap to remind them.
The Internet is therefore a tool of voters to impose their will on recalcitrant politicians. So far, the politicians have been powerless to stop this.
This is about to change.
You know the term "grassroots." It is one of the traditional terms of endearment in American democracy. (It does not resonate in Arab oil nations, where there is neither democracy nor grass.) "Grassroots" means "back home, where the voters are." It means, above all, OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY.
Inside the beltway, the free ride has officially ended for the adjective, "grassroots." The term is being re-defined by Democrats in the Senate . . . and Trent Lott. It now means "special-interest lobbying."
We all know what incumbent politicians think of the special interests, at least the special interests that vote rather than set up Political Action Committees (PACs) to hand out money to politicians. Senator Snort is always ready to denounce the special interests — those narrow-minded, single-issue, red hot-button special pleaders, those ideological fanatics who cannot be bought off with pork barrel largesse.
The special-interest groups that provoke the ire of politicians are the ones that do not write checks but who instead send emails to their representatives. These groups are mobilized into action, more often than not, by negative reactions. Their subscribers are negative single-issue voters.
Special-interest groups that set up PACs are part of the Capitol Hill club. They get lots of money from well-organized beneficiaries of special legislation. They hire lots of lawyers. They hire former Congressmen. This offers lifetime income prospects for incumbent politicians who lose elections. (Yes, this still occasionally happens, despite Gerrymandering.) They have staffs to fill out Federally mandated forms. They write checks. Do they ever write checks! They are not grassroots special interests. They are inside-the-beltway special interests. So, they are not defined as special interests. They are defined as "sources of expert information, which is vital to the legislative process."
Congress's problem with grassroots negative special-interest groups is two-fold: (1) they can inflict pain on election day on any politician who has voted the wrong way; (2) they rarely send money to the re-election campaign committees of those who voted the right way. They are all pain, no pleasure. In the eyes of incumbent politicians, they are a menace to society, a cancer on the body politic, a mockery of democracy as we have come to know it.
They must be stopped!
Hence, Section 220 of S.1: DISCLOSURE OF PAID EFFORTS TO STIMULATE GRASSROOTS LOBBYING.
Here are a few highlights. First, a definition:
The term 'grassroots lobbying' means the voluntary efforts of members of the general public to communicate their own views on an issue to Federal officials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same.
You know the types: people who conclude that a piece of legislation is against their interests, and who then try to defeat the legislation by communicating their hostile views to their elected representatives. Vicious!
Millions of these people have signed up to receive emails from donor-supported organizations that help alert them when Congress submits a bill for consideration. They do not usually join these organizations. They probably do not donate money. They are classic free riders. But the organizations need them, because these people will take action to stop a proposed piece of legislation.
These organizations attempt to coordinate the efforts of non-member, non-donating email subscribers — called "the general public" — by keeping them informed by email. In the eyes of Democrats in the Senate (and Trent Lott), such organizations are not quite criminal conspiracies, but they are close . . . very close. You see, these organizations get paid to keep the general public informed. Paid! Can you imagine this?
The term 'paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying' means any paid attempt in support of lobbying contacts on behalf of a client to influence the general public or segments thereof to contact one or more covered legislative or executive branch officials (or Congress as a whole) to urge such officials (or Congress) to take specific action with respect to a matter described in section 3(8)(A), except that such term does not include any communications by an entity directed to its members, employees, officers, or shareholders.
This wording says that they may communicate to their members without being defined as grassroots lobbying organizations, but not to the general public.
This bill says that before any such organization communicates to the general public, it must fill out Federal forms. It must fill out even more forms after it communicates to the general public.
If it fails to honor this law, if enacted, a donor-supported entity can be hauled into court by an Executive agency and fined $100,000 if it cannot prove that a particular email alert was never intended to persuade members of "the general public" to contact members of Congress.
The costs of hiring the defense lawyers will probably exceed the fine.
If your group is small, there is no problem. Small groups are politically impotent and do not constitute a threat to incumbents. Therefore. . . .
(B) PAID ATTEMPT TO INFLUENCE THE GENERAL PUBLIC OR SEGMENTS THEREOF — The term 'paid attempt to influence the general public or segments thereof' does not include an attempt to influence directed at less than 500 members of the general public.
So, if your email list has under 500 people, your organization are safe. For now. But you may have to prove that you have fewer than 500 non-member names of your list. The Executive will insist that its has the legal authority to demand that you turn over that list, just to make sure it is under 500 names. It will then have to compare this list with the names of your members. You will hand all this over or be fined for contempt.
There is another problem. A Web site is aimed at the general public. It may not be not members-only.
I operate a Web site, www.garynorth.com, that has a public section and a members-only section. According to this bill, I am allowed to communicate my concern about a proposed bill to my site's members. But what if I try to communicate the same message on the open-access portion of my site? How could I prove that I am not trying to influence over 500 members of the general public?
I get paid by site members. So, if I ever mention a piece of legislation on the "general public" part of my site, does this payment by members make me a grassroots lobbyist? How much will it cost me in legal fees to prove that I'm not?
You are reading this letter. You are probably not a member of my Web site. You are not my employee. You are not an officer or a shareholder in my corporation (unless you are my wife). But I have now sent you a warning about a proposed bill. I strongly suggest that you contact both of your Senators to tell them that you oppose S1.
They pay more attention to letters than to emails. So, here is the address:
A low-level staffer will then send you a polite form letter assuring you how much the Senator appreciates hearing from you, and how he will consider your opinion very carefully before he votes.
Rest assured, there is a computer data base that records YES and NO letters on each bill. Your opinion regarding S1 is very important to your Senator if there is a large majority in the data base of voters in your state who share your opinion.
If the form letter tells you that you have misinterpreted the bill, that it means something else entirely — which means that your Senator plans to vote for it — remember this: An Executive agency can enforce a law any way it sees fit.
Congress has no direct power over Executive agencies. This is part of the separation of powers principle of the U.S. Constitution. A law that is crystal clear, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which said explicitly that there would be no government-enforced racial quotas, will be interpreted however an "administrative law judge" (in-house agency prosecutor) wants to interpret the law in your case. This law is anything but crystal clear.
If an organization spends money to run an ad in a newspaper in order to influence the general public, it is clearly at risk under the terms of this law. It must report the expenditure to the Federal government. No organization is excluded from having to send reports on its actions.
(B) In the event income or expenses do not exceed $10,000, the registrant shall include a statement that income or expenses totaled less than $10,000 for the reporting period.
Of course, this law is specifically designed to increase the ethics of incumbent politicians and their staffs.
SEC. 232. MANDATORY SENATE ETHICS TRAINING FOR MEMBERS AND STAFF. (a) Training Program — The Select Committee on Ethics shall conduct ongoing ethics training and awareness programs for Members of the Senate and Senate staff.
Stop that giggling. You hear me? Stop it this instant! This is serious.
So far, this bill has received little attention by the thousands of special interest groups that will become its potential victims if it is signed into law. The mainstream media have said nothing, but this is not surprising. This is "buried deep in a bill" material, and the mainstream media rarely report on most of the hundreds of bills that are introduced each year.
A few conservative activist groups have issued warnings. Here is the assessment of the bill by the American Family Association. As you read it, think of this: What would it cost the organization to track all this?"
Under Senate Bill 1, AFA would have to report the issues, employees, contractors and dollars spent in what is called "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" (that phrase is not defined). This reporting requirement is triggered by two actions: (1) a lobbying "contact" — a personal or written communication with an individual in the executive or legislative branch of the federal government concerning public policy issues, from legislation to nominations; and (2) communications with grassroots (that's you) that "influence" them to contact the executive or legislative branches ("influence" is not defined, but it apparently doesn't even have to include a specific "call to action.") There is no minimum dollar spending requirement that triggers the reporting requirement by AFA for our efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying.
Once AFA identifies a "lobbying contact" that it has had (e.g., We talk with a senator about a Supreme Court nomination), then AFA will have to track all internal expenditures on that issue: AFA Journal articles, printing costs, payments to authors, etc.; AFA Online e-mailing costs; special website creations; broadcast expenses; and issue advertising (creative costs, ad buys, etc.). Cost of trips, speeches, and fundraising letters will have to be allocated to the correct "issue." (We could be dealing with a half-dozen issues, and we will have to keep tract and expense of every issue we deal with.) The compliance costs alone will be heavy, with the hiring of perhaps as many as 8—10 new employees to track both accounting and legal oversight involved and all the paperwork required.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said Section 220 would subject such groups to miles of red tape and greatly increase their costs — difficulties that could critically hamper their ability to rally constituents to contact their elected officials.
"This should be called the 'Silence the Citizens Act of 2007,' " Perkins said.
The bill is so complex that, even though it appears to exempt churches from its provisions, it might not actually do so.
"Even pastors who would encourage the members of their congregation to call their senators, their congressmen, about marriage, about life issues," Perkins said, "could theoretically fall under the provisions of this measure."
Amanda Banks, federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family Action, said the provision would apply if a group called on people to take action or not.
"Any time that we send out a CitizenLink e-mail, or we write an article for Citizen magazine or Dr. Dobson goes on his broadcast and talks about legislation — like he did today — we would have to record and report to the government four times a year," Banks said. "If we did not meet those guidelines, we would be subject to fines of $100,000."
The Democrats in the Senate (and Trent Lott) do not want to hear from you. They want to go about their business — and it IS a business! — in a quiet, orderly, and undisturbed manner.
Whether it's Iraq or the minimum wage, whether it's homeland security or the latest piece of pork for the contractors back home, they don't want to hear from you. They want your vote every six years. They do not want your opinion in between.
January 18, 2007
Copyright © 2007 LewRockwell.com