You can talk to your Congressman, but you have to register first

A scandal that hit Your Nation’s Capital over the past two weeks may impact how you talk to your elected officials – but you may not have heard about it.

In the wake of the White House and Democrat party accusations that large amounts of vocal opposition to their health care plans constitute “Astroturf” comes the revelation that a grassroots firm faked letters opposing cap and trade legislation.  K Street is a bit uneasy, to say the least.  Congressional hearings are forthcoming, and if some on Capitol Hill have their way, grassroots organizing will be classified as lobbying activity, with all the registration and disclosure requirements that come with it.  This is not only unnecessary, but also somewhat scary.

(True, I’m biased on this issue, since I earn my food money organizing grassroots campaigns for corporate clients.  But I like to think that makes me somewhat knowledgeable, too.)

I have organized and executed campaigns to drive constituent phone calls, constituent email messages, and constituent letters to decision makers on certain issues.  The key word, in all of this – and all legitimate grassroots campaigns – is “constituent.”  Without concerned, unpaid constituents, none of this works.

The sad thing about this scandal is that there are people out there who care about issues – especially cap and trade – and who are willing to write their elected officials.  It’s just a matter of doing the work to find and organize them.  That’s the work that hundreds of other firms do across the country: locate people who are interested in a cause, ask them to take some sort of action, and work with them to make it as easy as possible for them to do that.

If that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: that’s because this is the recipe for any successful political campaign.  Whether you’re trying to elect a dog catcher or a president, you are recruiting voters and trying to present your candidate or cause in the most attractive and convincing light possible.

To start regulating that is to assume it is bad.  If you want to parrot the White House’s line that health care companies (whom they have been courting) are evil enemies of progress, isn’t it better that they are making their case to the public rather roaming about Capitol Hill to shake hands with power peddlers in smoke-filled rooms?

If grassroots organizing is considered lobbying, where will the line be drawn?  If you oppose cap and trade or screwing up health care, then tell all your friends they should do the same, do you have to register?  What if you blog about it?  What if you update your Facebook status with a call to action?

The company that sent fake letters clearly crossed the line.  For that, they are probably done in the business – no companies or trade associations in DC will likely hire them and risk being sullied by their tarnished reputation.  Most firms that recruit constituents to communicate with members of Congress understand that

Of course, the discussion over grassroots organizing has become less about finding out what constituents are thinking and more about a political talking point.  As the sides argue over whose grassroots are grassier, I just hope that an important conduit between government and the governed is not severed.

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