When President Clinton unveiled an energy tax proposal in his speech to Congress last month, shock waves rolled through the offices of Washington's energy lobbyists. But for some of Washington's hottest lobbying shops -- ones that specialize in orchestrating grass-roots mail and phone blitzes to members of Congress from the hinterlands -- the proposed tax has generated barrels of money.
The American Energy Alliance, a coalition of more than 1,300 companies and trade groups including the American Petroleum Institute, has ponied up a million dollars to Burson-Marsteller Inc., the public relations giant, to nurture protests in 20 states against the tax, which Mr. Clinton wants to base on the energy content of fuels.
Burson, which just set up a unit last December to do grass-roots lobbying, is tapping almost half of its 100-person Washington staff for the campaign. The coalition has also paid about $400,000 to Direct Impact Co. of Alexandria for extra assistance in cultivating grass-roots opposition.
It's hardly surprising that energy companies are turning to grass-roots gurus for help. In recent years, grass-roots specialists have won kudos from an array of corporate and trade association clients for rapidly turning up pressure on Congress.
The Washington lobbying landscape is dotted with big and small firms promising to deliver the support that will make a critical difference in federal, state and local lobbying fights. For hefty fees, sometimes running more than $1 million per project, these firms use phone banks to drum up constituent support in key congressional districts or find a small group of community leaders who can put the arm on a member.
For their clients, these grass-roots consultants are often the last line of defense, called in when other lobbying, advertising and public relations efforts have been exhausted.
The industry's growth is being fueled by changes in the political world. Grass-roots firms say their business has gotten a fillip from the rising influence of talk radio and from the volunteer network put together by Ross Perot.
Growing criticism of traditional K Street lobbyists -- including attacks by President Clinton -- is forcing companies and trade groups to look for ways to exert pressure from outside the Capital Beltway. And grass-roots practitioners say that the unusually large number of congressional freshmen, who tend to be more susceptible to home-state pressure, present a special opportunity.
As the grass-roots business has expanded, it has also become more sophisticated. Starting a few years ago, for instance, the industry has been pitching "grass-tops" lobbying: Rather than generating letters and phone calls from ordinary Joe Sixpacks, they promise to round up local business and civic leaders who have clout with members of Congress.
The Washington-based RTC Group Inc., a major grass-roots firm, boasts that it has databases enabling it to pinpoint such leaders in every congressional district, "based on a variety of demographic and psychographic characteristics."
Lobbyists say that grass-roots campaigns must constantly change, lest they appear manufactured and lose their clout. "This is a business where you've got to be selling this year's refinement and improved version," said James E. McAvoy, who runs Burson-Marsteller's grass-roots unit. "If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, they see the pattern and it's no good."
But some members of Congress say the patterns are easy to discern. "You can tell after three letters or three phone calls," Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., said. "We're moved more by individual letters than by orchestrated campaigns. . . . It just doesn't work. They're under this delusion that we weigh our mail and phone calls."
The sheer volume of congressional mail, which is now more than 300 million pieces per year -- double what it was 10 years ago -- has forced aides to look more critically at what they receive. Many have become expert at detecting what Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen likes to describe as the difference between grass roots and AstroTurf.
"There's nothing new about grass roots," said Jack Bonner, a former aide to the late Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., who heads Bonner & Associates, one of Washington's premier grass-roots lobbying boutiques. "It's what started this country 200 years ago. What's new is that people are going back to it."
The technique may go back that far, but is has come a long way. Mr. Bonner's firm, dubbed a "yuppie sweatshop" by Newsweek magazine, uses a curious cross between old-fashioned letter writing and the latest high-tech wizardry used in political campaigns.
Mr. Bonner says he eschews retainers and charges only by results. The firm carefully logs the numbers of calls and letters it generates and bills clients accordingly. One of Bonner's specialties is finding what he calls "community leaders" -- people who speak on behalf of a group and who may know a member of Congress personally. Mr. Bonner charges $350 to $500 for each letter or call generated by a community leader. He also offers to set up meetings between community leaders and members for fees ranging from $5,000 to $9,000.
The hothouse where Mr. Bonner cultivates his grass roots is a downtown Washington office dominated by a computerized telecommunications operation. The equipment enables his staff to make telephone calls to targeted congressional districts and patch constituents through directly to their representative's office.
One of Mr. Bonner's biggest successes in recent years was his battle of the American Bankers Association against lowering interest rates on credit cards. In late 1991, after the Senate passed an amendment that would have forced banks to lower their rates, the ABA hired Mr. Bonner develop a popular revolt against the measure -- or at least the appearance of one.
During a four-day period, he generated about 10,000 calls from voters, including community leaders in 10 districts represented by members of the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee. The amendment died in a House-Senate conference committee, and the ABA paid Mr. Bonner an estimated $400,000.
Some recent endeavors have not been as successful. Mr. Bonner was retained by McDonald's Corp. in 1988 to fight a ban on polystyrene food packaging in Suffolk County, N.Y., which the fast-food chain saw as a testing ground for its efforts to block similar laws elsewhere. According to some former Bonner executives, the firm had a tough time finding community leaders go to bat for McDonald's. After a two-year drive costing roughly $800,000 -- about half of which went to the Bonner firm -- McDonald's abruptly switched its position and agreed to use paper packaging.
The Bonner staff had carefully cultivated a network of local supporters for McDonald's, and some former Bonner executives said that the reversal left them with egg on their faces. "We spent a lot of time couching an issue a certain way, and then the client said maybe we were wrong," an executive recalled. "The process lost credibility. These community leaders were led down a path, and then we had to leave them because the client had changed their mind."
Sometimes, the Bonner firm has had to dig in its own yard for grass roots. A former employee recalled that the firm had tried in vain to locate people in an affluent St. Louis suburb who would support the Smokeless Tobacco Council on an excise tax issue. The employee, a St. Louis native, called his sister, who was editor of her high school newspaper, and his mother, who taught at a local junior college; they were soon listed as "community leaders" opposing the tax.
For all their high tech wizardry, grass-roots lobbying firms still have a big problem: Many lawmakers say they don't buy what the firms are selling. "When some of these grass-roots campaigns got started, they were reasonably effective because they were new," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif. "I think the effectiveness has worn off. Members and their staffs get their letters and know they're ginned up."
Even the more sophisticated "grass-tops" techniques are relatively easy to detect, Mr. Synar added. "I don't think they can get around the problem of [obvious] orchestration," he said. "Everything still comes within a 10-day period."
Mr. Bonner bristles at such criticisms and says he makes no effort to hide his role in grass-roots campaigns. He says that his staff always tells constituents what client the firm is representing. And he says he recommends that clients inform congressional offices that they're using his firm to drum up pressure.
"The difference between grass roots and AstroTurf is whether the person knows what he's talking about and has a legitimate reason to be involved," Mr. Bonner said.
Mr. Bonner argues that critics have two sets of standards -- one for public interest groups and another for business. "Have we come to a point in our democracy where it's legitimate for environmentalists to take their message to the people but not for industry to do the same?" he asked.
But some observers say there's an important difference between the two types of lobbying. Fred Wertheimer, the president of Common Cause, notes that business, which already has plenty of financial clout, could gain an unfair advantage with the new grass-roots technologies in shaping public policy and legislation. you combine the institutions with unlimited resources with those that have new technologies, it could give new meaning to the phrase "reach out and touch someone."
Peter Stone is a correspondent for National Journal, where a different version of this article first appeared.