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Senate Should Pass Disclosure Requirements for Groups Masquerading as Grassroots Entities

Jan. 8, 2007

Senate Should Pass Disclosure Requirements for Groups Masquerading as Grassroots Entities

Public Citizen Releases List of 12 “Astroturf” Groups That Spent Millions on Stealth Lobbying Campaigns in Recent Years

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate should pass a sorely needed disclosure requirement for organizations and their lobbyists as part of the lobbying and ethics reform package being debated this week, Public Citizen said today. To illustrate the problem, Public Citizen released a list of 12 fake grassroots groups that spent millions in recent years to influence policy debates.

Known as “Astroturf” groups, these organizations represent themselves as grassroots entities but in reality are funded by wealthy corporate interests and are therefore able to spend millions on ads about controversial legislature measures. Under current law, there are no disclosure requirements to shine light on Astroturf campaigns, even when they identify specific pending legislation and urge members of the public to contact Congress.

Astroturf groups carry out campaigns on some of the highest-stakes issues of our day, persuading Americans to pressure legislators to support industry-backed positions on issues such as national energy policy, the estate tax and Medicare prescription drug legislation. The organizations often adopt populist-sounding names and make a practice of misrepresenting what they seek to accomplish.

For example, the Save Our Species Alliance recently sought to gut the Endangered Species Act to promote industry-friendly land management; Americans for Job Security targeted several senators in 2005 with ads to protect inherited wealth by advocating the repeal of the estate tax; and Citizens for Asbestos Reform, based out of the offices of the American Insurance Association, supported legislation in 2003 that would have prevented citizens harmed by asbestos from seeking redress in the courts.

Backers of these organizations also often mask their involvement by routing money through non-profit groups before it reaches entities that carry out the phony grassroots campaigns. Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform performed just this service, skimming off tens of thousands of dollars in the process, for now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed. The pair orchestrated a “grassroots” campaign to oppose pro-gambling measures that was in reality funded by the Mississippi Choctaw Indians, an Abramoff client that operated a casino and wanted to stifle competition.

Because of the lack of disclosure rules, average citizens and members of Congress are often unaware that these organizations are bankrolled by large corporations, industry trade associations or ultra-wealthy individuals. The United Seniors Association is one such group that spent millions on ads targeting congressional races and supporting prescription drug legislation desired by the pharmaceutical industry. Although billing itself as having a “1.5 million activists network nationwide,” it reported to the IRS that it received more than $20 million from a single donor in both 2002 and 2003, accounting for more than 75 percent of its revenue.

The measure under consideration in the Senate would require these groups to report amounts spent on grassroots lobbying if they are already registered under lobbying laws and if expenditures on grassroots lobbying campaigns exceed $25,000 per quarter. A similar bill containing this provision passed the Senate last year, and the House of Representatives will consider the matter as part of its package of legislative changes presented this month.

“For-profit lobbying groups were opposed to disclosure requirements in 1995 when the issue first came up on the floor of Senate,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “It didn’t pass that time, and the same wealthy corporate interests who have kept the public in the dark while spending millions on stealth lobbying campaigns are back trying to defeat it once more.”

To read profiles of 12 Astroturf groups active in recent years, click here.

To read Public Citizen’s response to opponents of disclosure requirements for the financiers of Astroturf lobbying, click here.