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J. Michael Smith, President — Michael P. Farris, Chairman
| ||April 24, 2007|
Federal Issue Update: Grassroots Lobbying
By William A. Estrada
Director of Federal Relations
Home School Legal Defense Association has taken a position in opposition to congressional attempts to regulate grassroots lobbying. This first became an issue for us when the 110th Congress introduced Senate Bill 1 (S. 1), a major lobbying reform bill. This was in the wake of certain corruption cases involving lobbyists and members of Congress, most notably the Jack Abramoff case. Many of the reforms in S. 1 are badly needed. However, section 220 authorized a completely new regulation of any attempt to encourage ordinary citizens to contact Congress and express their concerns. This involvement of citizens in their government was called “grassroots lobbying.” Any organization or entity that spent money to contact more than 500 people and urge them to contact Congress would have been required to register with Congress and provide quarterly reports. Penalties for noncompliance could have been as much as ten years in jail and a fine of $200,000.
HSLDA believes that this is an incredibly unconstitutional attempt to regulate protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution guarantees “the people” the right to communicate with their elected representatives. Congress should be more open to the views of citizens, not attempt to block out their voice. Homeschoolers need only remember the battle of H.R. 6 in 1994, when an attack against homeschooling was thwarted due to millions of phone calls from homeschoolers and their supporters. It is essential that we the people have the ability to communicate with each other and with government about our views.
HSLDA was concerned that due to the vagueness of the language in section 220, it was possible that even small homeschool support groups, and possibly even churches and individuals, would have fallen under the requirements of the law.
In addition, the privacy of organizations and individuals could be violated by requiring this detailed filing with Congress. Congress could easily add to these requirements, making organizations send in more and more detailed reports that are all publicly available.
And finally, HSLDA was concerned that this first step would lead to more regulation, which could eventually result in HSLDA and homeschool support groups practically being banned from sending action emails to homeschool supporters in the future.
Victory in the Senate…
HSLDA immediately swung into action, contacting our grassroots network and asking them to call their senators to oppose section 220 in S. 1. This is exactly what would have been regulated had S. 1 passed with section 220 in it. Due to an outpouring of calls from citizens all across the nation, from many different groups and political affiliations, the Senate voted on January 18, 2007, 55-43 to adopt the Bennett amendment which stripped section 220 from S. 1. When S. 1 was passed and sent to the House of Representatives for consideration, the harmful language regulating grassroots lobbying had been eliminated.
Continuing Vigilance Needed in the House and Senate
HSLDA is currently monitoring the lobbying reform bill’s progress in the House. At a recent hearing, some representatives expressed interest in putting grassroots lobbying back into the bill. Of course, if the House included this language, there would have to be a conference committee between the Senate and House to decide which chamber’s version of the bill would be sent to the president for his signature.
There may not be support in the House to try to regulate grassroots lobbying in the same manner as section 220. The defeat in the Senate slowed down these attempts. HSLDA continues to work with other organizations opposed to regulating grassroots lobbying to ensure that the House does not regulate grassroots lobbying.
The “Executive Branch Reform Act”: Another Attempt to Regulate Grassroots Lobbying
Another bill that is concerning is H.R. 984, the “Executive Branch Reform Act.” While this bill does not require private organizations or individuals to register and report to the government, it would require thousands of employees in the Executive Branch to file quarterly reports with the Office of Government Ethics, documenting any “significant contacts” with any person who is not a government employee. The name of the person who contacted the employee, the date, and the subject matter of the contact would all go into a publicly available database. This bill is written so broadly that it could even require phone calls or emails from the employee’s spouse, or political conversation at a ball game between an Executive Branch employee and a friend to be reported.
HSLDA opposes this legislation for numerous reasons. First, it is another step in taking away the right of citizens to speak to government officials (in this case the president and his staff) about issues that are important to them. Second, it would invade peoples’ privacy when they contact staff in the Executive Branch. Third, it could provide opposing organizations with information about people who contact the Executive Branch, and what issues they are discussing, thus jeopardizing the pro-family work that many organizations are pursuing.
HSLDA continues to monitor these and other bills to determine if they pose a threat to the homeschool community. While much reform is needed in Washington, D.C., reform cannot be used as a cloak to silence citizens. Protecting our rights often requires political activism and contacting our elected officials. That sacred duty and right must be preserved.