There they go again. Ever vigilant to protect themselves from democracy, the self-styled reformers in Congress are attempting to diminish the capacity of average Americans to have an impact on their own government. This isn’t the first time.

In 2001, Congress passed a campaign finance reform bill, known as McCain-Feingold, which was geared towards controlling how Americans and political parties could participate in elections. Now the reformers are trying to take the next logical step – controlling how Americans can participate in the political process once the elections are over.

Under current proposals, anyone who “encourages members of the general public” to communicate their views on any issue to a federal official could be categorized as a lobbyist and subject to reporting restrictions. This means that communications among the general public on issues before the Congress become subject to regulation by the Congress!

One such proposal from the House Democrat leadership would “require groups to account for and disclose their efforts at grassroots lobbying” and proscribes civil penalties upwards of $200,000, in addition to criminal penalties for failure to comply. How’s that for free speech?

One of the key Republican supporters of such an approach in the past has been none other than Senator (and presidential candidate) John McCain, who had his own bill aimed at grassroots lobbying in the 2006 Congress. Entitled the “Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act”, it would have redefined the term “lobbyist” to include “grassroots lobbyists”. Further, it defined “grassroots lobbyist” as anyone attempting “to influence the public, or segments thereof, to engage in lobbying contacts” with members of Congress.

In an interview with talk show host Don Imus in April of last year, McCain displayed his love of free speech saying that “I would rather have a clean government than one where ‘First Amendment rights’ are being respected…” McCain tried to mitigate some of the damage with the “First Amendment” crowd last week by opposing the same type of measures that were in his own bill.

The bottom line from the reformers? If you want to encourage your friends to contact their government on an issue you care about, you’re a lobbyist. And you’d better get your paperwork in buddy, because bureaucrats live to enforce this kind of garbage.

Is there anyone who seriously believes that elected officials can be counted on to take no action whatsoever against those who attempt to generate unwanted public scrutiny? Many people have legitimate reasons for wishing to remain anonymous when acting on their opinions in the political arena. Ever wonder why we have the secret ballot?

Grassroots lobbying is disclosed enough as it is. The messages that are delivered are not secret messages to government officials, but rather public messages written to citizens laying out the merits of an issue and urging THEM to contact their elected officials. In the process, the public can decide for themselves. They may even read such messages and take an entirely opposite position, even contacting their elected officials and demanding that they do the exact opposite. What could be more democratic?

The problem is that this isn’t about democracy. It’s about the desire of some politicians to know “who” is making life difficult from them. Forced disclosure of “who” is encouraging such contact enables the politicians to retaliate. And requiring registration discourages those who may have otherwise acted on their beliefs from participating to begin with.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project estimates that over fourteen million people currently qualify as “online political activists” – people who write and post their own opinions, the opinions of others, and forward them to others via email, audio and video. In the eyes of some members of Congress, that’s fourteen million potential “grassroots lobbyists” whose activity needs to be regulated.

Being able to anonymously advocate on behalf of one’s own opinions is entrenched in our country’s history and heritage. It was practiced by no less than our own founding fathers, most notably those who authored the Federalist Papers as an encouragement for ratification of our Constitution. Suffice it to say, they didn’t consider it a problem in need of reform.

As Ronald Reagan once said of elected officials, “When they feel the heat, they see the light”. This type of “reform” is an instance of politicians trying to turn off the heat and blow out the pilot light.

Don’t call them, they’ll call you – and usually for a campaign contribution.

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