Grassroots or AstroTurf? 

Focus on the Family tries to knock provision out of ethics bill

click to enlarge Focus on the Family patriarch James Dobson is riled by - the Senates proposed ethics bill. - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Focus on the Family patriarch James Dobson is riled by the Senates proposed ethics bill.

As Congress prepares to strengthen ethics rules, James Dobson is accusing lawmakers, particularly Democrats, of vying to clamp down on his ability to rally conservative Christians in the political arena.

"I am just about as irritated as I am going to get," the Focus on the Family chairman practically ranted on his radio show a week ago.

Leading a charge along with allies such as Gary Bauer of the nonprofit American Values, Dobson said this proposal to regulate "grassroots lobbying" would cripple his ability to influence confirmation of Supreme Court nominees, for instance.

Such regulation is prescribed in Senate Bill 1, sweeping new ethics legislation by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

Among myriad provisions, the bipartisan bill would ban meals from lobbyists and halt lawmakers' use of private corporate jets. It also would unmask lawmakers who insert last-minute, special-interest amendments, called earmarks, into bills along with any beneficiaries.

Focus on the Family Action, Focus' political arm, has targeted Section 220 of the bill. That requires "grassroots lobbying firms" receiving, spending or planning to spend $25,000 or more during any quarterly period to report to Congress.

"We need about a million people to oppose it, while we can still make a statement like this, because it might not be possible in the future," Dobson said, urging his listeners to sign an online petition against the provision. The petition accuses Democrats of "working fast and hard on their left-wing agenda."

Amanda Banks, a federal policy analyst for Focus on the Family Action, says listeners had submitted some 95,000 online petitions and 33,000 faxes as of Tuesday.

The provision, Banks adds, would "mandate miles of red tape," forcing nonprofits such as the Focus group to keep track of every broadcast, article and discussion with elected officials or their staffs that touches on political issues.

"It gets very, very detailed, and certainly, that's going to greatly increase our administrative and compliance costs," Banks says.

This week, Focus on the Family Action denounced a new House bill that would strengthen criminal penalties against hate crimes, including crimes against gays and lesbians. A press release raised fears that Christian activists "who have made politically incorrect statements" could be wrongly punished.

The public deserves more transparency of such political nonprofits, says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a watchdog group.

She calls Focus on the Family Action's efforts to rally support for its issues "AstroTurf lobbying."

"It's misleading lobbying," Sloan says. "It makes it appear as if there is a mass movement in opposition or in support of a piece of legislation when that doesn't really exist. It's generated. It's to fool lawmakers."

Sloan notes that the provision emerged last year in the aftermath of lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to corruption charges. Abramoff allegedly drummed up a phony grassroots campaign to convince lawmakers to oppose American Indian gambling, aiding a client's existing tribal gambling interests.

Overall, Sloan hails SB 1 as an important move toward a more accountable Congress, but bemoans the bill's lack of independent oversight.

Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, a Republican, generally supports the bill, including the grassroots provision, said his spokeswoman, Laura Condeluci.

"He has been supportive of this in the past, and is supportive of this currently," she said Tuesday, noting the bill may face possible amendments that could change his mind.

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat, is listed as a cosponsor of the bill which was nearing a vote at deadline.



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