Fertilizing the Grass Roots LATEST IN LOBBYING

May 30, 1993|By PETER STONE

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.

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