Washington Babylon — June 29, 2007, 1:10 pm

A “Grassroots” Anecdote

I’ve received a large number of tips in response to my story about Washington lobbyists and their plans to sell the Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan, which appears in the July issue of the magazine. I’ll be looking into some of them, and hopefully this will lead to more stories on lobbyists later.

For now, though, let me share one story because the events in question took place long ago, and the source was not willing to provide the name of the lobbying firm involved, making it all but impossible to track down. He did, however, offer enough details that I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of his account. And the story, I think, gives some valuable insight into how lobby shops actually work.

The source told me that he had direct knowledge of a campaign mounted by a “grassroots” lobby shop–those that manufacture allegedly spontaneous outpourings of support for legislation or causes being pushed by their clients. “Grassroots” lobbyists specialize in generating huge numbers of constituent calls or letters to members of Congress, and in setting up allegedly independent front groups to push legislation.

Those are pretty routine deceptions. But according to my source, one lobby firm working for a health care interest was willing to go the extra mile. When members of Congress returned from Washington, D.C., to visit their home districts, this lobby shop would obtain their schedules. Then it would arrange for plants to turn up at the stops–a hospital, say, or a school, or a public forum. The plant, presumably dressed to play a part, would approach the member of Congress to “spontaneously” voice their concerns. (“Congressman, that new health care bill is gonna put hard-working folk like me out on the street. Something has got to be done to stop it!”) The source told me the lobbyists were quite pleased with their handiwork and highly amused about how effective it was.

By the way, tougher disclosure rules for grassroots lobbyists are not likely to be part of the new lobbying rules that Congress will approve later this year–if it ever gets around to passing them. Both the House and Senate passed (watered down) reform packages earlier this year but so far have not managed to iron out the differences between them and put together a final bill.

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