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.
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."
"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.
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.
As the Washington Post's Jane Bryant Quinn reported back in 1999, "[E]ver since 1977, fund-raisers have fed on the notch. They send out letters, asking people to sign petitions to Congress (and, incidentally, enclose a check). They stir up resentment. They falsely tell people they're being discriminated against, based on the year they were born."
Thanks to these advocates, the notch issue still lives—even after a bipartisan Congressional commission concluded 20 years ago that "the Notch is a necessary and appropriate result of the 1977 legislation… and no legislative remedy is in order." Nevertheless, the "Notch Fairness Act" introduced by Rep. Ralph Hall, a Republican from Texas, in the last Congress garnered 118 cosponsors.
Nothing can or should stop groups from organizing petitions to Congress. This is a fundamental, First Amendment right. But professional petitioners are destructive to our political process in several ways.
First, they exploit the legitimate desire of ordinary voters to have genuine impact on what's happening in Washington. Real citizens are clicking on petitions to lobby their members of Congress, and whatever the underlying merits of a particular petition might be, they are nonetheless tapping into people's well-intentioned civic impulses. The problem is that in some cases these impulses are being channeled toward the narrow ends of the petitioning organizations.
Second, the flood of canned E-mails pouring into congressional offices during a petition campaign can drown out the efforts of constituents who take real time in composing thoughts to their congressperson (rather than clicking on a button). Hill staffers take every communication from a constituent seriously—whether it's an E-mail petition or a handwritten note—and most offices require that constituents receive a response within a certain number of days. The sheer volume of E-mail petitions swallows up valuable staff time and leaves less time for individual cases.
Third, by crowding out real debates with made-up issues designed to fire up voters (and open their wallets), these groups are potentially crowding out work on issues of less ideological interest but more importance to the governance of the nation. What Congress ends up rewarding isn't genuine thought or a good idea but an eye-catching message and an effective infrastructure that can drive the greatest number of clicks. Petitions trivialize the process of setting Congress's agenda into something about as meaningful as a "like" on Facebook.
One possible way to deal with these impacts is to require more transparency. For example, the organizers of petition campaigns are now anonymous. Citizens sending a petition might choose to give their names (or at least an E-mail address) but the organizers of the petition are undisclosed.
So why not, in the same way that sponsors of political ads are required to disclose themselves, require organizers of petition campaigns to disclose who they are as well? One option might be to require E-mail petitions to include a line at the bottom disclosing the organizing entity.
Another useful exercise might be to begin tracking the organizations that are promoting the various proposals "trending" on the Hill at any given time. Chances are, there's a petition campaign behind it, and it would be invaluable to members, their staffs, and the public to know which organizations are petitioning for what. That knowledge could help Congress "handicap" the various priorities that appear to be getting traction on the Hill. Part of the power that petition campaigns currently have right now is their seeming ability to materialize out of nowhere and in great numbers.
Many political reformers bemoan the influence of "special interests" who can demand such congressional largesse as tax breaks and lucrative government contracts.
But at least as pernicious, if not more, are the narrow interests that demand something even more valuable from Congress: their time and attention.
Professional petitioners to Congress might be one more dark corner of the Washington influence industry that deserves more exploration.
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