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Lobby bill spares political bloggers

Senators strike a section that would have required some "grassroots" lobbying groups to register or face prison time.

The U.S. Senate has rejected a proposal that may have required some political bloggers to register as lobbyists or face prison time.

By a 55-43 vote on Thursday evening, the senators approved an amendment that dropped a controversial section dictating such regulations from a massive piece of federal lobbying legislation.

Seven Democrats joined 48 Republicans voting in favor of the amendment, which was proposed by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). No Republicans voted against the measure.

The Senate went on to vote 96-2 to approve the entire lobbying package, as amended, on Thursday night. The provision removed from that bill, Section 220, would have required certain people engaged in "grassroots lobbying" to register with the government or face civil and criminal penalties, including up to 10 years in prison.

"What this was aimed at was the high rollers...When you get those phone calls at night or the e-mails from Citizens for Better Healthcare or whatever it may be, you have a right to know who's bankrolling that."
--Gary Bass, executive director, OMB Watch

Supporters of the provision had said it was meant to curb "astroturf" groups--that is, special interest groups, funded by large organizations, labor unions or corporations, that masquerade as ordinary citizens.

But a politically diverse set of advocacy groups, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to Gun Owners of America, argued that the proposal could actually sweep up a potentially broad swath of bloggers and nonprofit groups. Requiring them to register as lobbyists would violate core freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, they said.

Bennett, the amendment's sponsor, agreed. "Let's reaffirm that the zenith of the Bill of Rights is free speech, the right to petition your government for redress of your grievances, and the right to peacefully assemble, all of which are involved in grassroots lobbying and none of which should be criminalized," the senator said in a floor speech introducing his proposal earlier this week.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) made a last plea on Thursday to save Section 220, which he helped to craft. "This provision is intended to shed light on the dollars being spent by lobbyists," he said just before the vote on the amendment striking the language. "It in no way affects individuals who want to call or write their member of Congress."

The bill defined grassroots lobbying activity as a person engaging in "paid efforts" to encourage the "general public to communicate their own views on an issue to federal officials." That message would have to be sent to at least 500 individuals. The person would also have to spend or receive at least $25,000 related to his or her political efforts over any three-month period to trigger the registration requirements.

Mark Fitzgibbons, who runs the GrassrootsFreedom.com advocacy site that opposed Section 220, argued that would mean a political blogger who raised $25,000 to run a political advertisement in The New York Times would be forced to register with the government.

The amendment's passage drew applause from the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, one of the groups that opposed the effort. "I am pleased we were able to stop this breach of the First Amendment masquerading as lobbying reform," he said in a statement.

Supporters of the grassroots lobbying regulations voiced disappointment that the provision was dropped rather than tailored to target the sort of activity that the section's sponsors hoped to crack down on.

Gary Bass, executive director of the advocacy group OMB Watch, said opponents took advantage of convoluted legislative language to skew the debate in their favor and, in the process, exaggerated its effects on bloggers and nonprofit groups.

"OMB Watch would never support a provision that implicated bloggers or the citizenry in having to report all its activities and speaking out on public policy; that's just ridiculous," he said Friday. "What this was aimed at was the high rollers...When you get those phone calls at night or the e-mails from Citizens for Better Healthcare or whatever it may be, you have a right to know who's bankrolling that."