Stop Common Cause's lobby bill

It is not uncommon for lazy congressional staffers to rely on someone else's words in writing legislative history. It was obvious, for example, that the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee's report on H.R. 4395 was substantially copied from the testimony of Common Cause lobbyist R. Michael Cole, given almost a month before in the Senate.

The House committee's reliance on lobbyists in the case of H.R. 4395 was particularly ironic, however, because the purpose of that legislation is to check the pernicious influence of lobbyists on the legislative process. And because the submission of the testimony the committee relied upon would be exempt from the bill's coverage.

If this sounds rather silly, it is only a small fraction of the silliness involved in S. 1564 and H.R. 4395, the probable Senate and House versions of the proposed lobby law reform.

Although the various proposals differ in details, all would, at a minimum, require groups making as few as 13 contacts with congressmen or congressional staffers to provide information about themselves and their contacts. The Senate version would also require disclosure of contacts between groups and their members on legislative topics -- so- called grass roots lobbying. Although membership lists would not be required by current versions of either Senate or House bills, an effort will be made on the House floor to require disclosure of major contributors to loblying organizations.

The details of the bills are even more divergent, and reflect a series of politically motivated compromises.

Hence, an individual paying for an ad in the newspaper to encourage readers to write Congress would be required to register under the House and Senate versions of the bill. A newspaper doing the same thing in its editorial column would not.

The national organization of the Methodist or Baptist church could continue to lobby for liberal employment legislation or for prayer in the public schools, without being required to register. But not citizen's groups set up to oppose these positions.

The owner of a small company in Missouri would be able to communicate freely with senators from Missouri. The president of General Motors, which has thousands of employees in the state, would not.

As Republican John Danforth points out: "The plain and simple fact of the matter is that these distinctions make no sense at all.* Rather than an effort at balancing Constitutional interests, the distinctions set out in the bill represent instead an apparent attempt at regulating those interests that it is politically popular to regulate and exempting those with more political clout."

At the base of this effort is the self-styled citizen's lobby Common Cause. Perhaps more than any other organization in Washington -- liberal or conservative -- Common Cause has worked for a constrictive interpretation of the First Amendment. It was Common Cause which, in the Buckley v. Valeo case testing the constitutionality of federal election law, argued that speech did not include the expenditure of money in order to make speech possible.

The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

What if Congress were to pass a law like the proposed lobbying law but requiring newspapers to disclose all contacts with governmental sources?

Such a statute could certainly be justified by solemn pronouncements about "the public's right to know," the necessity of preserving the integrity of governmental processes (including the lives and reputations of government officials), and "the inadequacy of the existing federal . . . law" to prevent criminal disclosure of top secret information.

Would newspapers say that such legislation "has come out at about the right place," as one of them did of the lobby reform bill?

Maybe. But a greater probability is that they would stridently sermonize about the inviolability of the First Amendment and the reluctance of government officials to talk with the press when the contact is likely to be disclosed.

The same problems would result from H.R. 4395. The requirement of stepped-up disclosure of contacts between officeholders and controversial groups would only ensure that those groups are denied the limited access which they currently enjoy. It is difficult to see an enhancement of good government sufficient to compensate for such a result.

Some lobby reform advocates have argued that congressmen have been suckered into supporting conservative legislation by conservative groups with liberal-sounding names. Aside from its commentary on the intellectual depth of somme members of Congress, this assertion does little to advance their case. Unfortunately, it is not possible to legislate against stupidity. If a congressman is not clever enough to ask a visitor, "Whom do you represent?", then he is certainly not going to comb through thousands of pages of reports in order to screen his visitors.

A number of pro-4395 congressmen see the civil penalties imposed by lobby reform as an adequate remedy for government corruption. Presumably, they expect a barrage of entries such as "Gave $50,000 illegal bride to Congressman Snort, 8 /30/79." Suffice it to say that there are already plenty of laws dealing with official corruption. Their inadequate enforcement will continue so long as FBI corruption investigations are met with congressional attacks on the FBI.

The real effect of the legislation -- and perhaps the only significant effect -- would be to ensure that access by organizations to politicians would be limited to those organizations whose popularity would not render their access a political liability.

Given this result, it is hard to see how the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to assemble and to petition the government would be anything more than a hollow shell.

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