UNDER THE BANNER of lobby disclosure, some sweeping and meddlesome legislation is being advanced on Capitol Hill. The House recently passed a bill requiring most groups that pay lobbyists to file quarterly spending reports on both their Capitol Hill activities and so-called indirect lobbying - efforts to influence Congress by stirring up letters, calls and visits from people back home. A bill sponsored by Sens. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others, and now before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, would require even more detailed reports. Moreover, the Senate bill would compel any corporation, union, church or other group to register with the government and open its records to federal inspection if it spends $5,000 or more on advertisements, mailings or other efforts to get people to contact Congress about anything - even if the group itself never gets directly in touch with lawmakers at all.
Such provisions go much too far into realms of citizen activity that have traditionally been beyond the proper reach of government. Of course, when citizens form organizations, communicate about issues and petition Congress, they are engaging in public or political activities. But that is precisely why the First Amendment makes such activities exempt from public - i.e., governmental - interference or control.
To justify compulsory disclosure about grass-roots lobbying, one would have to make a massive record of corruption or abuse. In our view, that case has not been made. It's not enough that organized issue oriented lobbying campaigns have grown immensely sophisticated, expensive and numerous. That does not make such activities less legitimate. A letter to a senator favoring, say, an ethics bill is not necessarily less sincere or personal because it was prompted by some group's appeal. Moreover, such stimuli are usually no secret. Few attempts to influence Congress are more public than a newspaper ad. Campaigns to drum up mail are usually easy to identify; indeed, many groups brag about how many postcards or phone calls they can generate overnight.
It's true that life would be much easier for legislators, journalists and competing interest groups if such lobbying had to be reported. But compulsion brings interference, almost inevitably. We're not thinking just of the burdens and costs that reporting rules impose, though they could deter some smaller groups. Beyond that, there were indications in the House debate that some lawmakers regard disclosure laws as ways to punish, inhibit or embarrass various lobbyists with whom they disagree. Such sentiments lead right down the slippery slope toward impermissible interference with citizen's liberties.
In calmer times, more members of Congress would probably recognize these dangers and back away from such intrusive bills. But Congress these days is under strain, largely because lobbying of all kinds has gotten so extensive and intense. The lawmakers are bombarded by mail and besieged by professional advocates with various concerns. They aren't sure how much general sentiment those forces represent, how politics may be changing or how to turn down the heat. In this climate, the lobby-disclosure bills may seem attractive not so much to inform the public as to help legislators themselves figure out what is going on. But those political questions cannot be answered by demanding financial reports from virtually every active association of citizens in the land. It would be better for incumbents to learn more about their constituents' opinions by spending more time at home. And if they think some interest groups are getting too insistent, they could tell these groups to back off, or reject their demands.