HOW MUCH SHOULD groups that lobby Congress have to tell about their activities? That question is scheduled to come before the House today. It's easy to argue for extensive disclosure on the ground that citizens ought to know how various groups are trying to influence national policy. At some point, though, reporting rules run into fundamental principles such as freedom of speeches, freedom of association and the right to petition government.
In our view, the House Judiciary Committee has come out at about the right place. The bill coming before the House, H.R. 8494, would require quarterly spending reports from most organizations that lobby in the traditional way, by paying agents or employees to contact members of Congress , their staffs or executive branch officials about matters on Capitol Hill. The rules would not cover groups' dealings with their own senators or representative, or people who lobby as individuals or volunteers.
Some think H.R. 8494 falls short by falling to make lobbying groups disclose the sources of their funds. Granted, it is useful to know whether something called, let's say, the Committee for Tax Reform is financed by angry home-renters or by an industry with millions to gain from a small change in the code. But that hardly justifies requiring every group that lobbies to list all its contributors or even the major ones.Reports on the nature of each group's principal backers would be informative enough, while intruding far less on First Amendment grounds.
The largest controversy involves so-called indirect lobbying, the popular technique of putting pressure on lawmakers by using advertising, mass mailings, phone networks and the like to drum upvisits, letters and calls from people back home. Business groups have been using those methods heavily and with considerable success, as in the House defeat of the consumer agency bill. Thus many Democrats, especially, think such campaigns ought to be disclosed.
The Judiciary Committee, however, decided to keep H.R. 8494 out of this area - and we think the committee is absolutely right. Disclosure rules would sweep across the spectrum of civic, social, economic and political associations in the land. Such rules would create an immense potential for official interference with lawful, voluntary activities. Surely the First Amendment guarantees that citizens and groups may communicate with one other about public issues without registering with the government or filling quarterly reports on their efforts and finances.
Given all the problems involved, we wonder why some lawmakers - including many staunch champions of grass-roots activity - want to push laws into this field at all. One reason may be that they have not learned to cope with the barrages of mail and calls from prominent constituents, which lobbying campaignscan produce. They may not always know who is turning on the heat, or how much political weight to give the post cards generated by and ad. And they may fear that high-pressure lobbying is distorting congressional decisions or overwhelming other points of view. But laws can't really solve those problems. A better course would be for lawmakers to discount the lobbyists and spend more time back home learning what voters really care about.