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Synthetic opinion

When `grass-roots' campaigns are the product of lobbyists, members of Congress should know about it.

January 27, 2007

A MEMBER OF Congress will sit up and pay attention when told that 1,000 -- or even 100 -- constituents have written or e-mailed about a particular piece of legislation. Paying attention to grass-roots opinion is part of a politician's DNA.

But what if the voice of the people is really only an echo of a sophisticated pitch by professional lobbyists? In that not-uncommon situation, "grass-roots" lobbying of Congress has been dubbed the political equivalent of AstroTurf, the artificial grass first installed in the Houston Astrodome in 1966.

The real AstroTurf has its defenders. But no one argues that baseball or football players shouldn't know if they are playing on grass or on a synthetic substitute. (The information would be impossible to keep from them anyway.) Likewise, shouldn't lawmakers know whether a "grass-roots" campaign is actually "AstroTurf"?

The sponsors of the recently enacted ethics bill in the Senate thought so, and included in an early version of that legislation a proposal to require any organization that spends at least $25,000 to stimulate grass-roots lobbying to file detailed reports with Congress. The provision was stripped out, however, after complaints that the restrictions would interfere with free speech by ensnarling activists in bureaucratic red tape.

Chastened, campaign reformers have narrowed their proposals for "AstroTurf" accountability in a way that should allay any legitimate concerns about free speech. Instead of applying to all organizations that might urge their members to contact Congress, the more modest proposals being discussed would be limited to organizations that already are registered as lobbyists.

Even this regulation would be protested by some activists, who contend that a constituent who writes to a member of Congress deserves to be heard regardless of whether the idea was suggested by an interest group with access to direct mail or the Internet. After all, don't others influence us all in the formation of our political opinions?

True enough, but members of Congress have a right to know whether a campaign is the result not of a spontaneous sea change in public opinion but a professional operation. Such truth-in-packaging doesn't mean that lawmakers will disregard the outpouring of opinion on a given subject, only that they will put it in proper perspective.

Registered lobbyists are already subjected to disclosure requirements that don't apply to ordinary citizens. It's a minimal burden on free speech in the cause of making the legislative process transparent and accountable.

"AstroTurf" lobbying shouldn't be illegal, but neither should it be disguised as coming from the grass roots.

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