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Senate passes lobbying bill without restricting free speech

WASHINGTON (BP)–By a vote of 55-43, the Senate approved an amendment Jan. 18 that struck the controversial section of an ethics reform bill that would have threatened churches and pro-family groups with fines if they failed to register their actions with the government when informing people on moral issues.

“This legislation says that grassroots lobbying is defined as members of the general public communicating with their congressmen or encouraging others to do the same,” Sen. Robert Bennett, R.-Utah, said of the original bill while promoting the amendment on the Senate floor. “I thought that’s what we were all supposed to do. I was taught in civics class in high school that everyone had the right to do that without being forced to register and report all of their connections if somebody pays for it.”

Section 220 of the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act, known as S. 1, would have required churches and other nonprofits, classified as “grassroots lobbying firms,” to report to the House and Senate any time they spend money to communicate to their constituents on public policy issues that are before Congress. Amendment 20, which Bennett proposed and the Senate approved, struck Section 220 from S. 1.

All Republicans present voted for the amendment, and seven Democrats joined them, making passage of the amendment possible. Democrats who sided with Republicans were Max Baucus of Montana, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Kent Conrad and Bryon Dorgan of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Benjamin Nelson of Nebraska and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

During his speech in support of the amendment, Bennett emphasized that Section 220 was opposed “all across the political spectrum by those who are involved in trying to put pressure on Congress by virtue of communicating with their members.” He quoted a letter from the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and mentioned the conservative Eagle Forum and National Right to Life Committee as those who had voiced opposition.

“A grassroots lobbying group decides in its neighborhood that the most effective means of influencing and speaking up on legislation is to send out letters to its membership,” Bennett said, giving an example of what could happen under Section 220. “Or perhaps it may decide the most effective means would be to buy a mailing list and send out letters to the people on the mailing list. As soon as they spend the money to buy the mailing list, there is a paid lobbyist involved, and if the registration is not correct, there is a $200,000 fine against that group if we leave this provision in the bill as it is.”

With the language of Section 220 stricken from S. 1, the Senate passed the sweeping ethics reform bill by a vote of 96-2 a day after the measure appeared dead because of an impasse between parties regarding a line-item veto amendment.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, thanked the Americans who “flooded Capitol Hill” with calls and e-mails in opposition to Section 220.

“This provision was an unconstitutional attempt to silence and punish Americans for encouraging citizens to be involved in the political process,” Wright said in a news release Jan. 19. “More and more Americans want to know what Congress is working on and to express their views to their representatives. Grassroots organizations provide vital information for citizens to communicate with their elected officials. Placing restrictions and unfair limitations on these efforts would be an assault on the freedom of speech and the representative government we cherish.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, earlier called the proposed lobbying legislation “one of the most significant violations of free exercise of religion and the freedom of political speech in our nation’s history.” After the vote, he said he was pleased with the Senate’s decision to amend the legislation and protect grassroots political efforts.

“We’re delighted that members of the Senate understood the grave nature of putting severe restrictions on the free speech of churches and non-profit organizations,” Sekulow said in a Jan. 19 news release. “While the troubling language was removed from the Senate measure, we’re still deeply concerned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others will attempt to push through these dangerous restrictions in the House.

“Pastors and others who communicate about the moral and political issues of the day have constitutionally protected free speech rights that would be severely undermined with the passage of legislation classifying them as ‘grassroots lobbying firms,’” Sekulow added. “Thousands of Americans understand that such legislation threatens these constitutional freedoms and have responded in opposition to this measure. We are intensifying our efforts on Capitol Hill to focus on challenging this disturbing legislation in the House.”

Sekulow explained in a post on the ACLJ website that the House could take up such legislation as early as the week of Jan. 22, and indications are that Pelosi will insert the grassroots lobbying legislation provision into the House’s bill on lobbying reform.

“Once passed, it will require a conference committee between the House and the Senate,” Sekulow wrote. “We are not out of the woods yet on this important matter. Momentum continues to build, and we need to now turn our efforts to the United States House of Representatives.”

The Capitol switchboard number is (202) 224-3121.
Compiled by Erin Roach with reporting by Michael Foust.

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