|POLITICAL SCENE||September 1998|
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states in part: "Congress
shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ... or the right
of the people ... to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
These noble sentiments are at the root of activities that many hold to
be rather ignoble -- lobbying, or the "L" word, as it's often called. In
light of public concern over the undue influence of money in American politics,
it often seems that lobbyists occupy a special circle of hell conveniently
located adjacent to the politicians they petition and the legal profession,
to which many lobbyists belong.
This bothers me, because I am a registered lobbyist for the geoscience community, and I both like and believe in my job. So do the lobbyists for the universities that geoscientists attended or where some are employed. So do the lobbyists for large and small companies where many other geoscientists are employed, and so do those who work for advocacy groups that geoscientists support. In fact, my ultimate goal as a lobbyist is to see all geoscientists become lobbyists for their professional and scientific goals - exercising their constitutional rights as active constituents and citizen-scientists.
Perhaps this rather sunny attitude toward lobbying reflects the fact that I am a geologist, not a lawyer (remember that when taking my advice), and that the tax status of the American Geological Institute (AGI) allows lobbying but not campaign contributions, cramping my eligibility for most scandals. Moreover, geoscientists do not represent a sizable voting block prone to throwing its collective weight around. Thus, when I lobby, I rely on making the case that what is good for the geoscience community is good for the country -- a case made easier by the fact that much of the research conducted by geoscientists is dedicated to improving the environment, developing much-needed resources, understanding natural hazards, and improving knowledge of our planet.
If creating citizen-scientists is the ultimate goal of lobbying, then scientific societies serve as an important means of providing the information and the impetus to reach that goal. This month's column summarizes lobbying laws (excluding gift rules and congressional registration) in order to give geoscientists a better sense of what their societies can and cannot do for them.
What Constitutes Lobbying?
Not surprisingly, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines lobbying
one way and Congress defines it another. Here is mine: seeking to influence
legislation or the actions of federal officials. In turn, grassroots lobbying
can be defined as stirring up members of the general public to do the influencing
To qualify as lobbying, a contact must be made about a specific legislative proposal or agency action with Congress (members or staff) or with high-level executive branch officials. Among the expenses that must be charged to lobbying are time spent with the official, related research, and support-staff time.
Most of AGI's government affairs program (GAP) activities do not constitute lobbying. We provide information on a wide range of issues, but lobbying is restricted to geoscience appropriations bills, confirmation of agency leaders, and specific legislation such as the National Geologic Mapping Act. We also count time spent in support of individual member societies or their members who are advocating an issue.
Scientific Societies Can Lobby
To qualify under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, a professional society
must be "organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable,
scientific, ... literary or educational purposes." Organizations that qualify
for 501(c)(3) status are exempt from federal (and most state) taxes, and
charitable contributions made to such organizations are deductible by the
donor. AGI and most of its member societies have this status, which allows
some lobbying but no partisan political activity or campaign contributions.
Foundations are a special class within the 501(c)(3) status and may not
engage in any form of lobbying or political activities.
A 501(c)(3) organization is permitted to lobby so long as those efforts do not constitute a "substantial" part of the organization's overall activities. For many years, the IRS kept the definition of this term murky to discourage extensive lobbying by these organizations -- the general rule of thumb has been 5 percent of revenue. If a 501(c)(3) organization was found to be engaging in substantial lobbying, it could lose its tax-exempt status -- a mortal blow. In 1990, the IRS finally promulgated new regulations (based on a 1976 law!) giving these organizations much greater certainty about what they could spend, greatly reducing their risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
Under the revised regulations, an organization can register under the new section 501(h), which provides precise guidelines about how much can be spent on lobbying: A sliding scale runs from 20 percent for organizations with revenues up to $500,000 to a cap of $1,000,000 for organizations with revenues over $17 million. No more than a quarter of the total amount may be spent on grassroots lobbying. As an example, AGI had revenues of roughly $5 million in 1997 and could have spent $400,000 on lobbying - of which $100,000 could have gone to grassroots activities. But the institute's overall lobbying expenditures did not even come close to what could have been spent for grassroots efforts alone. We have plenty of room to grow.
Several of AGI's member societies -- such as the American Institute of Professional Geologists and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists -- are incorporated as 501(c)(6) trade associations. They are still federally tax-exempt, but contributions made to them cannot be taken as exemptions by the donor. These societies can lobby as much as they want - lobbying may even be the principal focus of their organizations -- and they may engage in political campaign activities or establish a political action committee (PAC). The only hitch is that the lobbying and campaign activities are taxable.
Now Go Out and Lobby!
Scientific societies must lobby if their concerns and interests are
to be heard in Congress, in federal agencies, and in the states. Advocacy,
public outreach, and education efforts make up a three-legged stool for
conveying the message that the geosciences are valuable to the nation.
We need all three legs to accomplish that job.
AGI Director of Government Affairs
Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program, at
For more information on this topic, go to http://www.agiweb.org/gapac/lobymemo.html.