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 constituent by giving him the brush off, but perhaps can afford to be blunt when dealing with hired guns.

Neither of these rationales for regulating lobbying applies to grassroots lobbying, since grassroots lobbying does not involve any direct communication or interaction with public officials.

Let’s put aside the question of how effective these rules are in practice, or whether such regulations are appropriate when applied to “lobbyists,” conventionally defined (i.e., persons that are paid to communicate directly with public officials with the intent of altering legislative or regulatory action).  Instead, I’d like to focus on the fact that most states define lobbying much more broadly than just the activities of hired guns that deal directly with public officials.

By my count, 22 states define lobbying to include soliciting other citizens to contact public officials, while another 14 states consider any attempt to influence public officials to be lobbying.  In most cases, individuals also must meet a minimum threshold of lobbying activity, based on compensation, expenditures and\or time spent lobbying, before being required to register or file disclosure reports.  However, there is no such threshold in Rhode Island, North Dakota or Wyoming, so just about any public advocacy could fall within the definition of lobbing in those states unless otherwise exempted.

Several states do make clear that religious organizations and the press are exempt from these requirements, and some exempt internal communications by corporations and membership groups.  On the other hand, some states count research or planning as lobbying expenditures, or even define lobbying as the intent to influence policy, so it’s possible to meet the definition of a lobbyist before actually saying anything.

The upshot of this is that the lobbying regulations in 36 states go beyond covering just the activities of stereotypical lobbyists – the guys in alligator shoes — and instead cover some range of public activism that probably few people understand to be regulated, and for which the rationales for regulating lobbyists described above do not apply.

Failure to comply with lobbying regulations can lead to administrative fines, criminal penalties, or being barred from future lobbying.  However, as with campaign finance disclosure laws, violations can cumulate and penalties can be levied per violation (and failure to correct an omission from a previous report can itself be a violation).

Obviously, it’s not possible to fully describe all 50 state laws in one post; Mowing Down the Grassroots contains more details on specific state laws including thresholds for qualifying as a lobbyist, disclosure requirements and penalties.

It’s difficult to know the extent to which these laws stifle political activism.  Our jails are not teeming with grassroots lobbyists, but that doesn’t mean that some people or groups aren’t deterred from getting involved.  The red tape that comes with disclosure requirements can be a hassle and intrusive.  Beyond this, the presence of broad laws gives regulators opportunity to do mischief when it suits them.

More professional interest groups are unlikely to be much fazed by such things, but political activism is not meant to be the province of a few elite actors; it is the right of every citizen.  Tomorrow, I’ll examine the benefits and costs of regulation of grassroots lobbying, including whether ordinary citizens can be expected to comply with disclosure rules.