Jan. 15, 2007 – Operating in relative secrecy, industry associations have long been using nonprofit organizations to pressure lawmakers to support corporate-friendly policies. A bill under consideration by the US Senate targets these fronts by forcing them to expose their backers more publicly.
The legislation, sponsored by Senator Harry Reid (Dâ€“Nevada), is part of a larger slate of congressional ethics reform introduced in early January. This particular provision would help Congress and the public discover corporate backers of so-called "astroturf" lobby groups that pose as grassroots public-interest nonprofits.
Investigations by reporters and watchdog groups have found that private-industry groups ranging from insurance and pharmaceutical companies to trade groups representing whole industries have been heavily funding nonprofit organizations with names like the American Family Business Institute and the United Seniors Association.
Most of the corporate backing happens in secret. Because astroturfs engage in advocacy directed at the public, instead of direct lobbying of lawmakers, they are currently not required to disclose their attempts to influence public policy â€“ not to Congress, not to the public.
Government and corporate watchdog groups say that since astroturfs do not have to publicly disclose the source of their funding and often have "populist-sounding names," they end up deceiving the public and members of Congress.
Reidâ€™s legislation would essentially redefine "lobbying activities" to include urging the public to lobby Congress. Any group that spends at least $25,000 during a three month period on "paid efforts to stimulate grassroots lobbying" would be covered by the bill. They would have to publicly disclose the names of individuals, organizations or corporations that gave them more than $10,000 in a six-month period for this indirect legislative activism.
Public Citizen recently compiled dossiers on twelve astroturf groups. The tax forms filed by these nonprofits mention their total revenues and expenses and provide a list of directors and large donors, but that donor list is not publicly available.
Public Citizen relied on news reports and its own investigations to compile its report, according to the groupâ€™s legislative representative Craig Holman.
For instance, Public Citizen found that the United Seniors Association, a "public interest organization of conservative seniors," has run ads promoting Medicare legislation that would benefit the pharmaceutical industry and spent millions of dollars distributing information to seniors about policy issues.
According to documents filed with the IRS, the Association â€“ which claims 1.5 million members â€“ received more than $45 million over two years from publicly undisclosed sources. Through its research, Public Citizen concluded that a portion of that money came from the industry group Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America.
However, it is unclear how much of the undisclosed money, if any, would be exposed by the proposed legislation because it is unclear how much was spent asking the public to contact members of Congress.
Senator Bob Bennett (Râ€“Utah) is proposing to strike the disclosure requirement from the ethics reform bill. His staff told TNS that Bennett thinks the requirement violates constitutional rights.
But Holman said the bill would not limit groupsâ€™ activities; it would only require they disclose those activities and who funds them. "The public shouldnâ€™t have to go through this kind of extensive research just to figure out who is lobbying Congress on major issues," he said. "When people are spending large amounts of funds, the public has the right to know whoâ€™s paying for the lobbying efforts."
Gary Kalman with US Public Interest Research Groups added that the creation of an independent agency, such as the proposed Office of Public Integrity, to enforce congressional ethics rules is essential for this legislation to be effective. "The key to all of this is enforcement," Kalman said. "If [the rules are] not enforced then itâ€™s hard to say theyâ€™re going to be meaningful."