The time-honored practice of Astroturf lobbying

Grass-roots lobbying, or reaching out to potentially sympathetic groups and individuals, has grown into a huge and sophisticated business.

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In Washington, one person’s Astroturf can be another’s Kentucky bluegrass.

No, Decoder has not flipped out due to broad-leaved weeds in his lawn. We’re talking about lobbying – the city’s third-largest business, after government and tourism.

“Astroturf” lobbying is the practice of generating false or misleading pressure out in the hinterland, the grass roots of politics. (Astroturf is fake grass, see? Oh, you got that.)

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If some D.C. lobbyist drafts an angry letter about an issue, then gets a compliant local to plant it in the hometown paper, that’s Astroturfing. So is sending out young Washington staffers on road trips to Iowa or Oregon to wave placards at congressional town-hall meetings.

The nickname is fairly new – Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas appears to have coined it in the mid-1980s – but the practice isn’t. President Nixon used to get his campaign folks to send him falsified telegrams of support.

Astroturfing is in the news because some Democrats claim that this summer’s uproar over healthcare at many lawmakers’ town halls was actually whipped up by activists from the nation’s capital. They say it’s fake, and they say the heck with it.

Decoder takes no position on this specific issue, other than to say that many of the people he’s seen yelling at congressmen don’t look like K Street restaurant types.

In general, however, the line between Astroturf and genuine grass-roots lobbying can be more difficult to determine than you think.

Most Americans probably think “lobbying” refers to paid professionals bending the ear of elected officials over lunch, but that’s no longer true. Grass-roots lobbying, the business of reaching out to potentially sympathetic groups and individuals in members’ home districts, is a huge and sophisticated business.

Spending on registered lobbyists (the ear-bending lunch smoothies) was about $3.24 billion in 2008, writes American University political scientist James Thurber in a recent essay on lobbyist ethics reform.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg lettuce, folks. Mr. Thurber estimates that the total spent on lobby activities in Washington, including grass-roots organizing, independent media campaigns, and other more under-the-radar stuff, is around $9 billion.

Google “grass-roots lobbying,” and you’ll turn up the websites of prosperous D.C. firms eager to help you mobilize a winning coalition with rural groups, seniors, veterans, educational organizations, and minorities. You provide the issue, of course.

Under current law, such efforts to influence the political process generally don’t have to be reported. The public has little idea what’s going on unless someone gets caught at out-and-out fraud, like sending out letters pretending to be people you are not in order to influence an issue (a true recent case).

Now, that’s Astroturf.

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