In the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Congress is prohibited from making any law that prohibits the right of people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This right has been held to include the right to lobby our elected representatives.
However, there are laws which regulate this right. If you are a professional lobbyist, for example, you will have to register with the Campaign Finance Commission, and pay a fee. Common Cause continues to do our best to make sure these fees do not become so burdensome on nonprofits, or citizen lobbyists, such that those with lower income wouldn’t be able to afford to lobby.
The right to petition cannot be limited to only those with financial means. The current law has no exemption for those claiming financial inability to pay the fee. That’s one Constitutional problem.
However, a recent ruling by the Campaign Finance Commission has some edgy about another Constitutional problem.
In this ruling, anyone who is being paid to lobby must register, regardless if the lobbying is done over a casual lunch, or done casually at all, or even if all that’s given is a few words of persuasion during testimony before a legislative committee.
To paraphrase Stacey Kalberman, Executive Secretary of the Commission, this ruling is necessary to prevent a clever runaround of the regulation requirement. So it closes a loophole that may not be exploited often, but certainly has the opportunity for such exploitation.
On the other hand, Mr. Patrick Millsaps, Chair of the Commission, cautions that this ruling, combined with the $300 registration fee, could chill citizens’ ability to lobby, or perhaps even testify before the legislature.
However, simply registering as a lobbyist, and disclosing expenditures, is critical to legislative transparency and public access to government. And it does not interfere with the right to petition.
What ultimately does chill the right to petition is a burdensome fee for registering, which one can not be exempt from. So, what we need to start is not looser laws on the requirement to register, but exemptions from the fee for registering, based on low income, and perhaps testimony that has been requested by or subpoenaed by a legislative committee.
And since the loophole exists because of the idea that lobbyists are being paid to lobby, perhaps there should be focus instead on expenditures on legislators, so that all expenditures are disclosed regardless of employment status.
We would like every citizen to have the ability to petition their government, and have their voice heard, and the right to petition should not be burdened by fees or registration requirements, but those requirements should definitely be in place wherever money is spent on a legislator.