Author Archive | Jeff Milyo

Grassroots Lobbying, Campaign Finance Laws and the Integrity of Democracy

It’s been my pleasure to guest blog this week on the topic of grassroots lobbying regulations. In the four previous posts, I’ve summarized the lessons from Mowing Down the Grassroots:  existing lobbying regulations in 36 states are so broad as to cover situations in which individuals or groups communicate to other citizens about public issues (i.e., grassroots lobbying) and such regulations have costs that have gone largely unrecognized.

The traditional rationales for regulating lobbyists – corrupting or buttonholing public officials — do not apply to grassroots lobbying; instead, states have asserted a right to know “who is speaking” for the furtherance of the “integrity of democracy.”  I leave for others to debate whether such a purpose is a legitimate reason to burden political speech, association and the right to petition.

The claim that political reforms are critical to preserving the integrity of democracy has been made by reformers of all stripes; whether referring to term limits, public financing, disclosure laws, voter identification, ballot access, etc., proponents frequently assert that their pet issue is crucial to this goal.  However, these claims are rarely put to the test, which brings our discussion back to my world of social science research.

The phrase “integrity of democracy” sounds great, but it must mean something concrete to be testable.  A common operational definition is the public’s trust and confidence in government; that’s the wording one sees in statements of legislative intent for campaign finance and lobbying laws, and that is the sense in which many political scientists have studied the issue. Since we can measure public trust and confidence in surveys, this permits us to put reformers claims to the test.

So does mandatory disclosure of grassroots lobbying increase public confidence or for the matter do lobbying regulations in general?  I don’t know; no [...]

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Unintended Consequences of Grassroots Lobbying Regulations

The benefits and costs of mandatory disclosure for grassroots lobbying campaigns are not limited to the question how much does the public need to know about a speaker versus how important is the safe harbor of anonymity for some speakers.  The process of disclosure has its own costs, a point that is not well-appreciated by many.

Consider that once classified as a lobbyist, an individual or group must not only register and pay a licensing fee, but must also submit periodic reports.  In some states disclosure is minimal (e.g., South Dakota, which only requires annual registration), but in others, grassroots lobbyists must file quarterly or even monthly expense reports, detailing things such as all legislation that is relevant to the group’s activities, the amounts of contributions including donated items, the names and addresses of contributors and itemized expenditures.  For sophisticated professional advocacy groups, these requirements are likely just a nuisance, but for ordinary citizens they can be quite daunting.

For example, consider that the state of Washington defines no less than 11 different types of lobbyists.  In particular, “grassroots lobbying” is defined as “a program addressed to the general public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed or calculated primarily to influence state legislation.” Any person or organization that sponsors grassroots activities that are not otherwise reportable under one of the other 10 definitions of lobbying must then file an initial grassroots lobbying report within 30 days of initiating any grassroots activity.

Grassroots sponsors in Washington are then required to file monthly activity reports, as well as a final report once that particular grassroots campaign is completed. These monthly reports require that groups identify not only the topic on which they are focused, but the actual bill, rule or rate number, as well as the names and addresses of [...]

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Why Regulate Grassroots Lobbying?

Grassroots lobbying involves communicating to the public about public matters; so what justifies government intervention in this area? Statements of intent from lobbying statutes in the states indicate that the primary rationale espoused for regulating grassroots lobbying is that the public has a “right to know who is speaking” and an interest in preserving “the integrity of democracy.”

For example, Rhode Island’s declaration of intent states: “Public confidence in the integrity of the legislative process is strengthened by the identification of persons and groups who on behalf of private interests seek to influence the content, introduction, passage or defeat of legislation and by the disclosure of funds expended in that effort.”   Similarly, the state of Washington declares: “The public’s right to know the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private.”  When applied to grassroots lobbying, these claims are disturbing in several respects.

First, the vague reference to the “integrity of democracy” is reminiscent of similar claims made by advocates of restrictive campaign finance laws.  However, there is no scientific evidence that restrictive campaign finance laws have much of an impact on citizens’ trust in government; and by extension, lobbying disclosure laws are unlikely to have any important effects either.  I’ll have more to say on this topic Friday.

Second, because grassroots lobbying informs and energizes citizen participation, it can act as a check on malfeasant representatives.  Party bosses may twist a legislator’s arm, but grassroots groups can twist back on the other.  Given this, the presence of disclosure laws that raise the costs of grassroots activism may actually undermine the “integrity of democracy.”

Third, these claims ignore the Supreme Court’s recognition that mandatory disclosure can impose unacceptably high costs on certain [...]

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Grassroots Lobbying and State Lobbying Regulations

Ross Perot famously characterized lobbyists as “these guys with alligator shoes”; indeed, few vocations are less esteemed than lobbyists, especially since cable television has romanticized bail-bondsman, tattoo artists, and pawn shop owners.  In contrast to conventional lobbying, which involves paid actors communicating directly with public officials, grassroots lobbying is any effort to organize, coordinate or implore other citizens to contact public officials for the purpose of affecting public policy.

Grassroots lobbying is therefore not just the exercise of free speech and association, but the very process by which like‐minded people coordinate their efforts and petition government for the redress of grievances.  So, whether it takes the form of a public rally, a letter‐writing campaign or an impassioned blog entry, grassroots lobbying is quintessential representative democracy in action.

Every state regulates conventional lobbying to some extent, although the details vary.  Broadly speaking, lobbyists are expected to register with the state and pay fees, identify themselves when talking to public officials, and to file occasional reports detailing their activities and finances.  Lobbyists may also face more restrictive rules for gifts or campaign contributions than ordinary citizens.

These regulations may be understood as consistent with the goal of preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.  Limits on gifts and contributions help keep the stakes low (for one side of the potential exchange, anyway), while disclosure requirements keep dealings with public officials somewhat transparent.  The idea is that such laws make it more difficult for lobbyists and public officials to engage in illicit quid-pro-quo exchanges, while also insulating innocent communication from being viewed as such.

A more mundane rationale for regulating lobbyists is that legislators find it useful to know who is buttonholing them in the hallway to talk about a pending piece of legislation.  Elected officials probably don’t want to insult a [...]

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Tocqueville Meets the Speech Police

The two pillars of representative democracy are free and open elections and free and open debate.  Every schoolchild is taught not only that the Bill of Rights enshrines citizens’ rights to speech, association and petition, but that America is great because citizens speak out on issues of public concern and bring their arguments directly to politicians.

Many readers likely recall the classic 1975 “Schoolhouse Rock!” segment on how a bill becomes a law (“I’m Just a Bill”), in which legislation requiring school buses to stop at railroad crossings starts with “just an idea” until some “folks back home” decide they want a law passed and contact their congressman. But today, should you decide to exercise your rights as an American with only civics lessons and the Bill of Rights as your guide, beware.

Nowadays, you need more than just the courage of your convictions and a soapbox to speak out on matters of public importance; you need a good lawyer, too.  Just ask Bishop Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut:

In March 2009, state legislators in Connecticut tried to rush through a bill that was widely recognized as a blatant act of retribution against the Roman Catholic Church. The Bridgeport Diocese had previously been successful in fighting for a conscience-protection amendment to gay marriage legislation.  Elected officials responded with Raised Bill 1098.  This legislation would require lay people to govern corporations that own church property, which would effectively strip Catholic bishops and pastors of control over Church finances.

The bill was introduced without notice and placed on the legislative fast-track. But state legislators underestimated the Most Reverend William Lori, the blogging bishop of Bridgeport. Lori used his website to inform the faithful and send out a call to action.

On just four days’ notice, the Bridgeport Diocese arranged for buses to take [...]

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