What does writing your Congressman accomplish?

Do you ever get the feeling the government isn’t listening? If you’ve ever written your Member of Congress, you just might get the idea that while they’re “keeping your views in mind,” they really don’t care what you think.

I probably write the drunken sailors in Congress a lot more than your average American. Out of the three, one never responds. Never. The other two have an army of staffers whose sole responsibility is to send out form letters explaining why I don’t understand what they’re doing and how their liberty-destroying proposals are actually good things. While, of course, they keep my views in mind.

Oh, and did I mention that they frequently wait for days or even weeks before sending back the form letters? And some of the form letters don’t even mention what’s currently going on in Congress, but what happened last year or two years ago?

I’m quite accustomed to getting form letters back in which Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) either take no position, or take a totalitarian stance on whatever issue of the day. Indeed, I only generally skim through them to see if the staff managed to compose complete sentences and spell everything correctly. Shouldn’t be too hard, since they have access to the finest spell check your money can buy. But even spell check is no substitute for proofreading.

The latest form letter response from Sen. Feingold, of which I received two identical copies, and in which he tried to explain why Downsize DC should be subjected to onerous government paperwork every time it sends out a message, actually did contain a spelling error: “. . . requires Senators to pay market value fro the skyboxes and corporate jet flights . . .” And that wasn’t the only error in the text.

Adobe Reader - Feingold Statement on Section 220 Amendment-2But that part wasn’t about Downsize DC. The PDF attachment, however, was. And, as I learned, the PDF attachment was quite unreadable. (One of the embedded fonts in the file is apparently corrupt, or was attached incorrectly. I can’t tell which.)

It would seem that our so-called representatives in Congress really don’t keep our views in mind, and really don’t even want to communicate with us if they can possibly avoid it.

(Later, thanks to the miracle of copy and paste, I learned that the file contained Sen. Feingold’s statement that the proposed law doesn’t actually do what it said in the plain language of the section. How does this guy keep getting re-elected?)

P.S. If you’ve never seen one of these form letters, read this.

Dear Mr. Hampton,

Thank you for contacting me about the provisions of S. 1, the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007, requiring the disclosure of paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying. I appreciate hearing from you.

The right to petition the government is protected by the First Amendment. Grassroots lobbying-citizens voluntarily contacting their elected officials-is an essential part of our democratic system.

Paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying have become a large and lucrative business. Special interests and so-called “grassroots” lobbying firms spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, phone banks, email campaigns, and direct mail designed to get citizens to contact their elected officials about a
specific issue.

Every year, special interests spend billions of dollars to influence members of Congress. The American people deserve to know something about how lobbyists are spending that money, but lobbyists and “grassroots” lobbying firms are currently not required to report how much they spend on efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying. I believe that this loophole should be closed.

Section 220 of the original version of S. 1 required large “grassroots” lobbying firm and registered lobbyists to report how much money they spend to stimulate grassroots lobbying. Unfortunately, Section 220 was mischaracterized as having an impact on regular citizens contacting their members of Congress, and the Senate voted, 55-43, to delete section 220. I voted against this amendment.

I have enclosed by statement opposing the amendment for your review. I understand how strongly you felt about Section 220, but I urge you to review my statement concerning this issue, in which I addressed many of the incorrect assertions that were made about the provision.

On January 18, 2007, the Senate passed S. 1 by a vote of 96-2. Even without Section 220, S. 1 is a strong bill that will end the status quo of influence peddling on Capitol Hill. It bans all gifts from lobbyists, requires Senators to pay market value fro the skyboxes and corporate jet flights they currently receive at heavily
discounted rates; targets the “revolving door” between service in Congress and lobbying firms; limits Senators’ ability to go on lavish junkets paid for by lobbyists; closes a loophole that allowed lobbyists to “honor” members of Congress with expensive parties at the Democratic or Republican national conventions; and requires Senators to publicly disclose the earmarks they request.

I will continue to fight to hold members of Congress to highest ethical standards and to increase the transparency of the legislative process.

Sincerely,

Russell D. Feingold
United States Senator

And since the attached PDF file is virtually unreadable, here’s the recovered text of Sen. Feingold’s statement which was contained therein.

Mr. FEINGOLD. Mr. President, I strongly oppose Senator BENNETT’s amendment to strike section 220 from the bill. The debate about section 220 is essentially a debate about the openness of the legislative process. It is a debate about the right of the American people to know who is spending money to influence their elected representatives and how that money is being spent.

It is important not to be misled by the use of the term grassroots lobbying in section 220. We aren’t talking here about constituents reading the newspaper and deciding to call their Member of Congress to weigh in on the issue of the day. No, what section 220 deals with is paid grassroots lobbying, the spending of money to try to get the public to contact Congress. It is estimated that grassroots lobbying is a billion dollar business. That is a billion undisclosed dollars spent by special interests to influence the legislative process. We should keep in mind as well that in 2005 a few million of those undisclosed dollars went to Grassroots Interactive, a so-called “grassroots” lobbying firm controlled by Jack Abramoff. E-mails made public by the Indian Affairs Committee indicate that Abramoff and his accomplice Michael Scanlon prided themselves on being able to make it appear as if there was significant public concern over an issue. Further, those e-mails suggest that Abramoff and Scanlon used the grassroots lobbying firm as a way to avoid public scrutiny of their activities because current law does not require disclosure for grassroots lobbying firms. For example, Jack Abramoff reportedly paid Ralph Reed $1.2 million to use his Christian Coalition network to stimulate public opposition to a tribal casino; under current law, Ralph Reed’s supporters were completely in the dark about the fact that their antigambling efforts were being funded by a competing tribal casino.

The lobbying disclosure law, as it stands now, contains a billion dollar loophole. All section 220 does is close that loophole.

I am going to address some of the claims made by the Senator from Utah, but first let me explain what section 220 does. First, it requires registered lobbyists to report how much they spend on efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying on the lobbying disclosure reports that they are already required to file. Second, it requires large professional so-called grassroots lobbying firms to report on the amount they receive for their services, just like any other lobbyist. And that is it, that is all section 220 does. Organizations do not have to report on the amounts they spend to communicate with their own members, and they only have to report on the cost of their communications with the general public if they are required to register and file under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

By the way, communications to fewer than 500 people are not considered by section 220 to be communications to the general public. And here is the important thing private citizens can still call, write, e-mail, fax, or visit their Senators anytime they want, in response to a call from a telemarketer or an e-mail from an organization they belong to, or because they read something in the morning paper, without ever have to report anything at all. Citizens are completely unaffected by this provision.

Some groups, especially the ACLU, have raised concerns that section 220 will intrude on Americans’ freedom of speech and right to petition the Government. I appreciate the ACLU’s concerns and am grateful for its vigilance in protecting our civil liberties, but in this case its reservations are unfounded. In 1954, in United States v. Harriss, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of disclosure requirements in the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, stating that Congress is entitled to require a modicum of information from those who for hire attempt to influence legislation or who collect or spend funds for that purpose. That is exactly what section 220 does. Without disclosure, the Court warned, “the voice of the people may all too easily be drowned out by the voice of special interest
groups seeking favored treatment while masquerading as proponents of the public weal.”

Paid grassroots lobbying is a billion dollar business. It will not be chilled or discouraged by the very reasonable disclosure requirements in section 220.

While the ACLU’s opposition to section 220 is honest and heartfelt, the same cannot be said of attacks made by some other groups. Their claims are so outrageous, so manifestly untrue, so unhinged from any connection to the reality of this bill, that I would like to assume that they have been misinformed about the details of the section, or that perhaps they are mistakenly referring to an entirely different piece of legislation. Unfortunately, I think it is more likely that they are engaged in a campaign of deliberate misinformation about the details of section 220.

And of course, because of the loophole they are trying to protect, we may never know who is spending big money to try to convince the public to tell us to oppose this provision.

I certainly would not claim that the Senator from Utah is deliberately trying to mislead the Senate. But his statement today shows a deep misunderstanding of how section 220 works. So let me address several of the claims he made.

First, the Senator from Utah said the following:

Someone who gets his neighbors together and says, let’s all write our congressmen on this issue and then spends some money doing it, under this provision, becomes a paid lobbyist and if he does not report and register, would be fined $200,000 for having done that.

That is simply not true. The definition of lobbyist and the requirements for registration are not changed by this bill or section 220. A lobbyist doesn’t have to register under the Lobbying Disclosure Act unless he makes a lobbying contact on behalf of a client and receives over $5,000 for lobbying activities engaged in for a particular client.

So the person who gets his neighbors together as described by the Senator from Utah and spends some money getting them to write some letters is not a lobbyist and does not have to register’before this bill or afterwards. That is not just a matter of interpretation of the statute; it is the undisputed meaning of the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

The Senator from Utah also said the following in his statement yesterday:

A grass-roots lobbying group decides in its neighborhood that the most effective means of influencing and speaking up on legislation is to send out letters to its membership. Or perhaps it may decide the most effective means would be to buy a mailing list and send out letters to the people on the mailing list. As soon as they spend the money to buy the mailing list, there is a paid lobbyist involved. And if the registration is not correct, there is a $200,000 fine against that group if we leave this’this provision in the bill as it is.

Again, that is not true. Unless an organization makes direct contact with a Member of Congress and spends more than $10,000 in a quarter on lobbying activities, then it does not have to register. And if it does not have to register, it does not have to report its spending on that mailing list. In addition, and this is very important, a group’s spending to communicate with its own members is not considered grass roots lobbying at all.

The only way that this group would have to register is if it makes direct contact with a Member of Congress and spends over $10,000 in a quarter on lobbying activities, not including communicating with the general public to try to get the general public to contact the Congress. If the group does that, then it is not a small grassroots lobbying group. And yes, it has to register and report. I think that is the correct result.

I have taken a fair amount of time to respond to the Senator from Utah because this legislation is too important to let mistaken discussions of this provision stand without an answer.

Some of section 220’s opponents have claimed that it is designed to keep the public in the dark about the legislative process, that it targets individual citizens and small grassroots organizations, that it will prevent organizations from communicating with the public, and that it will smother lobbyists in miles of redtape.

None of these claims are true. Not one. I suppose the groups spreading this information are so afraid of section 220 that they are willing to say anything to try to stop it. But I wonder exactly what they are afraid of. Section 220 only applies to registered lobbyists and large grassroots lobbying firms, and it does not prohibit or restrict their activities in any way. In fact, section 220 merely makes public how much money they spend and how they spend it. Surely these groups that have tried to convince people to contact their offices with mistaken claims about the bill aren’t afraid of a little sunlight’or maybe they are.

We are so close to passing the kind of ethics bill that the public wants, that the 2006 elections endorsed, and that our democracy needs. Defeating this amendment will bring us closer to the day we can go back to our States and tell our constituents that we actually delivered real bipartisan lobbying reform. But what will our constituents say if this amendment succeeds and the Senate votes to reopen a billion-dollar loophole in the lobbying disclosure law?

I urge my colleagues not to be fooled by the phony arguments being advanced by the opponents of this provision. I ask my colleagues to please vote no on the amendment of the Senator from Utah.

Mr. President, I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.

At least, I think that’s what it says. It’s so hard to tell when every letter has been replaced by a black dot.

One thought on “What does writing your Congressman accomplish?

  • May 16, 2007 at 2:20 am
    Permalink

    Mark, thank you for sharing your concern about the volume of mail received at the U.S. Senate. I’ll be sure to keep your views in mind.

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