Online Petitions Distract Congress From Real Issues

Fringe advocacy groups are able to get thousands of signatures with just a mouse click to petition on made-up issues.

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Anne Kim is the managing director for Policy and Strategy at the Progressive Policy Institute.

Recently, Congress finally wrapped up weeks of heated debate over the survival of the Export-Import bank—a tiny, independent, and once-obscure agency that involves just 2 percent of U.S. exports.

The sudden spotlight on the once-incognito Export-Import bank is in part about election year politics; there aren't enough teapots to hold the tempests politicos seem to brew daily. But credit also goes to a cottage industry of special interests organizations that make a living serving up "issues" as red meat for their memberships (and coincidentally as vehicles for their fundraising).

The campaign to end Export-Import Bank, for example, was one of several national petition drives being peddled by the right-leaning National Taxpayers Union. (The organization's home page invites visitors to "Donate," "Shop," or "Take Action," in that order, and the merchandise includes such books as How to Fight Property Taxes available for $9.95.) It was also a top legislative priority for the lobbying arm of the conservative Family Research Council, FRC Action, which prospective members can join for just $25, as well as a "key vote" for the Club for Growth.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

These organizations are among the legions of groups that make it their business to launch online campaigns to Congress on issues of varying legitimacy. They deluge the Hill with hundreds of thousands of E-mailed petitions, purportedly the effort of concerned citizens but in reality the product of these groups. By mobilizing massive online petitions that take just a few clicks to send, these groups can send enough E-mails to instantly elevate a nonissue into one of national and immediate importance (while also soliciting new members and donations).

Many of their causes—if not the groups—should sound familiar.

Americans for Limited Government, for example, is still trying to defund public broadcasting with one of its petition campaigns. It's also asking for donations to help air a video in battleground states showing "that the class warfare, environmental extremism, and freedom-crushing agenda of the Obama administration is no mere accident."

Another group, US-English, is dedicated to making English the nation's official language. In addition to its petition drive, it offers, for just a $10 membership fee, a chance to "become part of the nation's largest group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language."

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

"End the Fed," is mounting a drive to, well, end the Federal Reserve, and sponsors a store on its website where supporters can buy "End the Fed" T-shirts ($20 each or $12 in bulk), bumper stickers ($2), and buttons (30 cents each for a box of 250) after sending a petition to Congress.

And then there's the American Policy Center, which claims to have delivered 250,000 petitions to the office of Rep. Christopher Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, demanding a hearing on Rep. Ron Paul's bill to revoke America's membership from the United Nations.

Visitors to American Policy Center's webpage can not only click to send a petition to Congress, they can donate to the American Policy Center ($15 suggested), buy America Policy Center President Tom DeWeese's latest book ($19.95), purchase Freedom Action Conference DVDs (a bargain for $7.99) or splurge on the "Stop Agenda 21 Action Kit" ($195).

While corporate lobbyists and super PACs have borne the brunt of public scrutiny for their influence on Washington, groups such as these deserve the glare of sunlight as well. For one thing, these groups have a business model that justifies keeping an issue alive, even if the facts don't support it.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on Super PACs.]

For example, the grand-daddy of these efforts (so to speak) might be notch reform, a campaign organized around a group of aggrieved seniors—the "notch babies"—who believe their Social Security benefits to be unfairly low. In reality, the notch is the result of changes passed by Congress in 1977 to correct an accidental windfall to some Social Security recipients.