Are lobbyists behind recent protests?

A protester talks through a megaphone.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Speaking of the health-care debate, things have gotten downright confrontational in some parts of the country. You've probably heard of congressional town hall meetings being disrupted by protesters recently. Mobs shouted down a congressman in Texas. They hung another in effigy in Maryland and booed senators from coast to coast. Even in the age of the Internet, orchestrated mass action doesn't come cheap. Marketplace's Steve Henn looked into who's paying.


STEVE HENN: These protests started almost simultaneously. All across the country last weekend men and women holding signs and chanting greeted members of Congress and senators at town halls in at least a dozen states.

As the meetings began the protesters spread out and shouted angry questions. Opponents of the health-care overhaul called it a grassroots uprising. But many Democrats believe these nationwide demonstrations were organized by pros.

And if they were, the public may never know who paid for it. Laws require professional lobbyists to disclose the companies that hire them. But...

TARA MALLOY: At the moment, for better or for worse, the lobbying disclosure act does not cover attempts to create demonstrations.

Tara Malloy at the Campaign Legal Center says a huge part of Washington's influence industry operates out of sight. Firms can fly operatives across the country and even pay protestors directly, and they are not required to tell Congress or the public what they are up to.

MALLOY: And really it can be the biggest industries hiring the most sophisticated firms out there and the public will know very, very little about these efforts. And indeed these type of flash mobs or these types of protests, they can have a huge impact on the course of legislation. And nonetheless the lobbying law, as currently drafted, is not going to cover that and it will not provide disclosure to the public.

Some lobbying experts estimate that roughly three quarters of the industry is made up of unregistered lobbyists who never disclose their clients, their causes or how much they make.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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