Lobbying by deception and misinformation


Many people are familiar with the phrase “grassroots lobbying.” It implies that the public feels strongly about a bill and people contact their elected officials demanding action.

Unfortunately, most of what appears to be grassroots/citizen lobbying is orchestrated by well-funded interest groups, using by highly-paid consultants and PR firms.

To stimulate this citizen passion, especially when the public might not agree with their real goal, lobbyists work to inflame public sentiment even if it means distorting the truth. This is certainly not true of all lobbyists and interests, but it is far too common among some.

This year Minnesota legislators have received countless emails urging us to oppose Senate File 833, which “threatens the affordability and accessibility of (cell phone) services for all of Minnesota’s families and businesses.”

To stimulate public opposition to this, the cell phone industry’s ad campaign showed a picture of a frustrated woman looking over a document labeled “State Wireless Taxes and Fees” with a caption: “So why are state legislators threatening to increase the cost of our wireless?”

Shortly before SF 833 was heard in the Senate Commerce Committee I read the bill, expecting to see some questionable regulations or taxes. What I found was quite different.

SF 833 is actually a consumer protection proposal supported by the Attorney General to address deceptive practices of some cell phone companies. It does not contain any new taxes or fees. It contains nothing more than basic provisions such as a requirement that you receive a copy of your contract when you purchase wireless service, a requirement that the company clearly disclose provisions allowing them to charge you termination fees or change terms of your contract, and that the company require that you authorize any charges on your phone bill from other companies, such as for a new ringtone.

Certainly one could quibble over details in the bill, and I supported some changes to make it work better. Even the author of the bill was willing to work with the wireless companies to address concerns.

But there was nothing in the bill that even remotely reflected what one would expect based on the lobbying. It is no more expensive to make the terms of a contract transparent than to hide billing and pricing practices from the consumer. Honest disclosure does not cost more.

Most consumers who contacted legislators would support preventing cell phone companies from deceptive practices. Yet the wireless companies lied to the public, convincing many to oppose a bill they would support if they saw the legislation.

Deceptive lobbying aimed at alarming the public is not a rare occurrence, it happens to many environmental and consumer protection bills.

Another example is my legislation to require new cars to meet tougher emissions standards and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases. This proposal has led to a continuous flow of misinformation prompted by auto manufacturers.

Their misleading information convinced one angry constituent that my proposal would “kill” street rods (modified classic cars). He also was under the impression that it would ban many chemicals and paints, as well as wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. The bill has zero impact on any of his concerns.

The auto industry cannot defeat the bill on its merits so they use fear tactics and misinformation. They have created a website aimed at scaring farmers and soccer moms alike, claiming that the bill would “severely limit the sale of trucks and minivans” so that we could “force the sale of more compact and subcompact cars.” This is simply not true.

The polls show that an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans support tougher air quality standards for vehicles. This support would be even stronger if consumers knew that the cleaner cars produce significant savings at the gas pump.

In both of these cases, powerful lobbying groups have generated “public” opposition through deception and misinformation, and may well defeat legislation that would have strong public support if the facts were known. This is not a shining example of democracy in action.