Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure, the new COINTELPRO

cross-posted at: The Center for Competitive Politics

So, lots of people are concerned about the current health care reform proposals being considered in Congress. Shouting down Members of Congress, fisticuffs between those opposed and those in favor of the current proposals, accusations that those opposing the proposals are somehow “un-American” – this, it seems, is the messy part of free speech. Messy, but vital (well, maybe not the brawling).

This messiness apparently provides an opportunity for the so-called campaign finance “reform” community to jump in with their latest effort to restrict citizens’ First Amendment rights, this time in the guise of disclosure for the funding of grassroots lobbying.

Apparently, it is possible that some of the American citizens showing up to voice their displeasure with the health care reform proposals are being urged to do so by business groups and Republican/conservative/libertarian-leaning organizations. And this is, apparently, troubling to some. The Hill reports in “Town halls underscore grassroots secrecy, critics say:”

Lobbyists have to register their activities and expenses with Congress, but well-funded grassroots firms don’t — a fact that aggravates watchdog groups.

Those groups that use increasingly sophisticated tools to gin up public outrage or support for an issue have to disclose little about their activities. That means hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to influence the political process goes unreported.

…the lack of transparency in grassroots advocacy has been underscored anew by the difficulty in determining if the outrage over healthcare reform expressed in recent town hall meetings is genuine constituent anger or manufactured angst with the help of businesses and interest groups whose bottom lines could be hurt by the reform push.

“This goes below the radar. We don’t know who is behind it or who pays for it. We don’t know how much of it is happening,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that had lobbied for more disclosure in 2007…

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), backers of the disclosure provision, said they were targeting “AstroTurf” campaigns in which big-money interests use phone banks, computerized fax systems, TV and radio advertisements and direct-mail campaigns to create the impression of public support…

Given the limited disclosure rules, it is impossible to estimate just how much is spent on grassroots advocacy, real or fake… It seems certain, though, that the grassroots advocacy business is booming… the success the Obama campaign had in turning citizens who hadn’t been particularly politically active into campaign donors has showcased the opportunity to build an army of support relatively quickly.

The answer to the problem of American citizens showing up to voice their concerns to their elected representatives is, apparently, to try to stifle those groups encouraging this sort of reckless and unwanted civic participation. So, regulation of grassroots lobbying (something CCP was instrumental in opposing, see Grassroots Lobbying Proposals Ignore Constitutional Protections for Anonymous Speech, Grassroots Lobbying Proposals Seem Not to Further Congress’ Interest in Correcting Lobbying Abuses, and Congressional Testimony: Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure) appears to be making a comeback.

All of this talk of the “secrecy” surrounding grassroots lobbying and a lack of “transparency” regarding groups trying to influence politics and speak to fellow citizens makes me think of COINTELPRO, the old J. Edgar Hoover program to spy on those Americans who were considered troublesome due to the causes they promoted with their First Amendment rights.

For those of you unfamiliar with these early efforts to keep tabs on the political activities of anti-war groups, civil rights protestors, socialists, and other malcontents, a quick search online finds some great resources. Here’s one book:

Assault on the Left: The FBI and the Sixties Antiwar Movement

A sad chronicle of the government’s spying on citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. In 1939… President Roosevelt pressed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to investigate “sabotage, espionage, and subversive activities.” …Hoover concerned himself largely with the third sphere, compiling dossiers on millions of Americans who harbored socialist sympathies or protested the governing policies of the era. In 1956, President Eisenhower authorized increased surveillance of suspected radicals… With the rise of the antiwar movement in the 1960s, the anti-subversion elements of the FBI embarked on their elaborate, and infamous, COINTELPRO operation, which extended breaking and entering to new heights: infiltrating leftist organizations with paid informants and agents provocateurs who encouraged peaceful groups to engage in terrorism; writing anonymous letters to fellow travelers, parents, and prospective employers charging leftists with illegal activities; targeting prominent dissidents with smear campaigns…. The COINTELPRO operation ultimately failed…and it did nothing substantial to halt the antiwar movement, which managed to stage some of the “largest mass demonstrations ever seen in the western hemisphere” despite the FBI’s best efforts.

Nowadays, of course, “reformers” don’t urge anything so crass as government infiltration of those groups who dissent from whatever orthodoxy they approve of. Instead, “reformers” simply demand that citizens self-report their dissent and their political activities, and threaten them with financial ruin if they don’t properly confess their nefarious efforts to exert “influence” with elected officials and the public.

I do not believe that this is progress.

Sean Parnell
Center for Competitive Politics