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Grassroots Lobbying: Definition and Mass Mobilization

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

Grassroots lobbying differs from other forms of lobbying in that it involves the mass mobilization of the public around a particular legislative issue. In this lesson, we'll explore the basics of grassroots organizing and some notable examples, after which you can test your knowledge of the subject with a brief quiz.

What is Lobbying

As members of a democracy, we elect the politicians we want to represent us in government, but how do we control their legislative activities? One way some people try to influence elected officials is through a process known as lobbying. Lobbying can take a couple of different forms, some of which can be quite controversial. Grassroots lobbying, however, is a generally accepted and effective practice that mobilizes the public at the local level to influence legislation.

Direct vs. Grassroots Lobbying

Official lobbying organizations engage in direct lobbying, through which they appeal directly to members of the U.S. Congress, or their staff members, for changes in legislation. In dealing with lawmakers, direct lobbyists push for earmarks, or pet projects, tax exemptions and other client perks. For example, groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) use direct lobbying by supporting candidates for office who agree with the organization's position on firearms. While some lobbying organizations also try to influence the public, their method of communication must directly refer to a particular position on a specific piece of legislation.

By comparison, grassroots lobbying involves appealing to the general public in the hopes that people, rather than lobbyists, will contact government officials about an issue. Grassroots lobbying can take the form of petitions, such as those found on the website, change.org, signed by members of the public and presented to Congress. It also involves members of the public calling, emailing, faxing or even visiting their congressional representatives. For instance, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) used grassroots lobbying to motivate the public and help reform the drunk driving laws in Hawaii.

However, when grassroots organizations ask their members to call, email or write lawmakers about a particular issue, they're engaging in direct lobbying. For their efforts to be truly grassroots, the organizations must reach out to the general public, not the membership.

Lobbying Rules and Regulations

The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, from which grassroots organizations are exempt, requires lobbies to register with both the House and the Senate in the U.S. Congress, which tracks their spending. Direct and grassroots lobbying organizations that operate under the 1976 Lobby Law have different limits on their expenditures. For example, out of the first $500,000 a lobbying organization spends a year, 20%, or $100,000, of that amount can be spent on direct lobbying. By comparison, while a grassroots organization can only spend 25% of its yearly expenditures on grassroots lobbying, it can spend the rest on direct lobbying.

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