‘Congressional Reform’ Proposal Would Regulate Ordinary Citizens More Harshly than K Street Lobbyists

Why is Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen going after the little guy? Will Nancy Pelosi — as expected — follow her lead?

The Free Speech Coalition has the details (emphasis is mine):

Public Citizen acknowledges it is helping craft legislation for Speaker-Elect Nancy Pelosi… The bill would treat communications to the general public more harshly under lobbying disclosure law than actual lobbying conducted by high-priced K Street lobbyists. The new legislation won’t be available until the next Congress convenes, but its model, H.R. 4682, would create unprecedented restrictions and penalties, potentially criminal, on the free exercise of First Amendment rights by citizens to speak, publish, associate and petition the government.

Says the Free Speech Coalition’s leader, Dick Dingman, in a press release today:

Public Citizen fails to disclose how the grassroots legislation would hurt citizen advocates and critics, protect big special interests and assist corruption in Washington. Public Citizen, with its eight-figure assets and multi-million dollar revenues, shows no shame in being less than honest about so-called ‘honest government’ legislation.

The Free Speech Coalition press release continues:

First Amendment lawyer and Co-Counsel for the Free Speech Coalition, William J. Olson, said, “The Public Citizen/Pelosi bill would allow corporations, unions and even foreign interests to spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars mobilizing their shareholders, officers, employees and members, yet hide those expenditures. On the flipside, their bill would require real citizen associations to essentially obtain Congress’s consent to communicate about important policy matters that impact on them. It’s not just the imbalance that is wrong; it’s a frontal attack on the First Amendment and political speech.””The grassroots legislation may be the most expansive and wrongly targeted regulation of First Amendment rights ever written,” added lawyer Mark Fitzgibbons. “We hope that Democrats who pledged reform when campaigning will target real corruption instead of the rights of citizens to participate in their democracy,” he concluded. Free Speech Coalition Co-Counsel, Mark Weinberg, expressed confidence that his fellow liberal Democrats will see the light and correct these inequities.

The National Center fought a proposal to regulate citizen communications with their elected representatives in the waning days of the last Democratic Congress. At the time, Congressional Democrats were trying to do something about the influence of talk radio hosts, which they (rightly) saw as an inconvenient impediment to their power in Washington. I also remember that issue as the one time I’ve ever been asked to be a guest on the Rush Limbaugh Show. We were leading an effort to alert talk radio hosts to the impact that legislation could have had on the public (for example, had it passed, an American family flying to visit DC could have been required to register as lobbyists if they also visited their Congressman and shared any opinion whatsoever with him, because the airfare incurred in traveling to DC would have met a supposed “lobbyist” test). Because the provisions affecting grassroots Americans had been written very subtly, I was asked to come on to explain how the bill would affect talk radio and ordinary Americans. Being a big ditto head (which I still am), I was really psyched, except I realized that no one had ever heard of me, and might not take my word for it that the bill really said what it did. So I called over to Tom DeLay’s office. We had only a few minutes’ notice, because I got the call after finishing a CNN broadcast that ended at noon, and Rush’s show was to start six minutes later. The CNN folks — liberal or not, the people in the headquarters tend to be extremely nice — knew what was up and the time pressure we were under, and volunteered me a room from which to make the calls (this is before everyone had cell phones). Tom DeLay was still a rank-and-file Congressman then, but he knew all about the bill and, unlike me, he was known to Limbaugh’s audience. The staffer told me Tom was on the floor (of the House, not his office), so I gave her the Limbaugh studio phone number, told her to run over to the floor, pull Tom off of it, and have him call Rush immediately to go right on the air. She did it — she must literally have run to have done it so fast. Tom came right off the floor and called Rush immediately, to lead off the show. It was a great interview. The phones lit up on Capitol Hill. It had a huge impact. Support for the ill-conceived proposal — which had been expected to pass — evaporated because of the Limbaugh listeners, the Mike Reagan listeners, the Gordon Liddy listeners, the Alan Keyes listeners, and the listeners of many other talk shows (this is, after all, 1993 — before most people had even heard of the Internet). It was one of those days when you really feel like it is worth it to be in the DC information-sharing (non-profit) “business,” because just getting the word to the American people had such an immediate and important impact.Unfortunately, though, even when we win here in Washington, the victories tend to be temporary. Those who would regulate ordinary citizens who merely want to talk to their government are at it again.

Now, at least, we have Internet communications to help us spread the word.

For more details about the Claybrook/Pelosi proposal, see a letter (PDF) the heads of 47 groups sent to Joan Claybrook today (disclosure: I’m one of the signers), and read the analysis that accompanies the letter. You also can visit the Free Speech Coalition’s website.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.