January 18, 2007 2:11 PM PST

Lobbying backlash could hit bloggers

A bill that Senate Democrats have touted as a means to curb corruption in Washington could instead target some political bloggers with new regulations and even criminal penalties.

The legislation, which began as an attempt to rewrite federal lobbying laws in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal, has ballooned to more than 9,000 words and a thicket of complicated rules. It was the subject of a failed attempt by Senate Democrats on Wednesday to defeat a Republican filibuster over a line-item veto, and debate is continuing Thursday afternoon.

Much of the bill's wording is obtuse. But one section says that certain political bloggers who make or spend $25,000 per quarter and who encourage readers to contact their elected representatives would be forced to register as lobbyists--or face up to 10 years in prison.

"You have a First Amendment right to contact your congressperson and you have a First Amendment right to tell others to do so," said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "Now they're saying you have to report to the federal government if you're going to engage in this First Amendment-protected activity."

The controversial requirement lies in Section 220 of the massive bill, which supporters of the legislation say is intended to curb the practice of lobbyists setting up "astroturf" groups. But in a conference call on Thursday, a broad range of groups including the ACLU, the Free Speech Coalition, the Traditional Values Coalition and National Right To Life said it would hurt their own groups' abilities to influence Congress and place unreasonable restrictions on Internet politicking.

"We have concluded that this would certainly include bloggers," said Mark Fitzgibbons from American Target Advertising, which provides services to mostly conservative organizations. Fitzgibbons, who runs the GrassrootsFreedom.com advocacy site that opposes Section 220, warned that the legislation "has no regard for the media being used" and includes the Internet.

Under the legislation, a "grassroots lobbying firm" must register with the government or face civil and criminal penalties. "Grassroots lobbying" is defined as a person engaging in "paid efforts" to encourage the "general public to communicate their own views on an issue to federal officials." That person must also spend or receive at least $25,000 related to his or her political efforts over any three-month period.

A letter that Fitzgibbons wrote last week uses the example of a political blogger who raises money for a newspaper ad that costs $25,000 would be affected by the rule.

"Nobody I know doubts that the 'culture' of Washington and Congress itself need serious attention and cures," he wrote. "Attempts to regulate communications to the general public made by those who do not have Washington lobbyists, however, shifts the blame away from the real culprits within Congress and Washington."

The growing outcry over Section 220, especially from conservative groups including Gun Owners of America, has led some key supporters of the overall legislation to defect and oppose that language. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has said that he will vote for Amendment 20 by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) to strip out Section 220.

Kay Guinane, a lawyer at the nonprofit group OMB Watch who strongly supports the legislation, said that critics of the bill are misguided.

"This provision actually has fairly limited impact, but the way it's written and the way the (current law) is written it's very confusing," Guinane said. "I think there's been some misinformation here that's whipped up some hysteria in the blogging community that's not justified."

Guinane acknowledged the language was confusing, and said that she would prefer to see it rewritten rather than completely eliminated through the Bennett amendment. "I'd rather see them clarify 220 so it's perfectly clear to everyone how limited the impact of this provision would be," she said.

Originally, Section 220 had only civil penalties (existing law specifies fines of up to $50,000). But last week, by a vote of 93-2, the Senate added criminal penalties for failing to "comply with any provision"--which is what, in part, caused the new outcry from grassroots groups that would be affected by it.

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