When Focus on the Family founder James Dobson looked at Senate Bill 1, he saw a provision that could have crippled the crowd-gathering power of his political arm. So he did the natural thing.
He gathered a crowd.
And sure enough, with Dobson leading the charge, a slate of large nonprofits and their "grassroots" supporters helped convince lawmakers to strip Section 220 from the bill that aims to clean up ethics in Congress. The section would have required nonprofits to track and report "grassroots" campaigns if $25,000 or more was involved.
A victory news statement by Focus patriarch James Dobson claimed Democrats failed to trample "the rights of citizens to know what's going on in Washington and to have an impact on the bills considered there."
But supporters of the regulations argued that average citizens were hardly threatened.
They said large political nonprofits like Focus on the Family Action would have lost some of their ability to amass support for divisive interests like amending hate-crimes legislation to include gays and lesbians. The provision aimed to weed out phony grassroots campaigns, known in the beltway as "AstroTurf" lobbying, says Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The actions of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who last year pleaded guilty to corruption charges in an expansive scandal, inspired the crackdown. He allegedly created a fake grassroots campaign to convince lawmakers to oppose selected American Indian casino proposals a ploy that aided a client's existing tribal gaming interests.
Strange bedfellows united to kill the provision, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners of America and the Christian-conservative American Values.
For its part, Focus on the Family Action rallied devoted masses in a fax and Internet petition campaign.
Amanda Banks, federal policy analyst for the group, says the nonprofit also worked closely with Sen. Bob Bennett, the Utah Republican who introduced an amendment to strip the provision from the bill. Senators last week voted 55-43 in favor of that amendment, with the help of Colorado Sens. Wayne Allard, a Republican, and Ken Salazar, a Democrat.
"The senators understood that [Section 220] was the wrong way to go," Banks said.
Allard and Salazar were among 96 senators who voted for the overall ethics bill. Sens. Tom Coburn and Orrin Hatch, both Republicans, were opposed. Two senators did not vote.
The bill seeks to end lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers and corporate-subsidized jet trips, among myriad provisions meant to sweep ethics scandals out of Congress.
A day after the bill passed, former Rep. Bob Ney, an Ohio Republican, was sentenced to 2 years in prison for accepting golf packages, meals and campaign donations from Abramoff in exchange for favors. Ney is the first congressman convicted in that still-unfolding scandal.
The House is expected to introduce its own version of the bill as early as this week. It was unclear at deadline whether it would contain a grassroots lobbying provision. If it does, "we will fight it," Banks promised.