If you think the health care reform fight has been aggressive, hear this: The lobbying war over climate change could be even nastier.
The climate bill battle has fractured partisan, geographic and industry allegiances; thrown erstwhile enemies into strange-bedfellow partnerships; and sparked allegations of dirty tricks on both sides of the debate. And this is just the beginning.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has filed a 36-page civil complaint demanding a jury trial of the Yes Men, activist hoaxers who staged a fake press conference announcing a fictitious Chamber about-face on climate change two weeks ago. The Chamber is already reeling from member defections over its climate bill opposition.
On the flip side, Washington lobbyist Jack Bonner and coal industry organizer Steve Miller were excoriated on Capitol Hill last week by lawmakers who accused them of deceptive practices. At a hearing before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, lawmakers grilled Bonner and Miller about more than half a dozen faked anti-climate bill letters sent to Capitol Hill purportedly from civil rights and civic leaders.
Both controversies signal a rough-and-tumble climate bill fight ahead, with the full range of pressure tactics thrown into the mix. By nature, environmental policy disputes tend to break down along unpredictable partisan and geographic lines, and that has been especially true for the cap-and-trade climate bill now wending its way through Congress.
The Yes Men stunt raises questions about misrepresentation in lobbying and when it strays over the line.
Democrats have squabbled among themselves; Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have declared themselves willing to work with Democrats, angering some in their own party; and environmental groups have forged new partnerships with industry players promoting green energy.
Unlike health care legislation, which is highly complex and has riled mostly seniors, the environmental debate turns on simpler, more clear-cut conflicts, and grabs the younger generation. Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, noted that younger activists are more adept at using new media, which tend to foster more innovative and sometimes questionable tactics such as the Yes Men stunt.
"You are going to see massive use of grassroots strategies from every conceivable cause, all kinds of coalitions being formed, media outreach at all levels of media, use of social media -- and every conceivable tool is going to be employed in the climate change debate," Pinkham said.
The environmental movement has a history of disruptive activism, of course, including overtly illegal acts by groups such as Greenpeace. The fraudulent press conference that the show business professionals known as the Yes Men staged on Oct. 19, however, crossed into new territory by using political theater for lobbying. It fooled established Washington journalists with a meticulously staged event at the National Press Club, and featured a press release that linked directly to the chamber's actual Web site.
In a complaint filed Oct. 26 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Chamber accuses Yes Men Jacques Servin (also known as Andy Bichlbaum) and Igor Vamos (aka Mike Bonanno) and their cohorts of trademark infringement, unfair competition, trademark dilution, false advertising, cyberpiracy and unlawful trade practices, among other legal violations.
The Yes Men are "not merry pranksters tweaking the establishment," Chamber general counsel Steven Law said in a statement. Rather, the Yes Men broke the law and engaged in "commercial identity theft" to promote themselves and their new movie, The Yes Men Fix The World, he said. Separately, the Chamber sought a takedown of the group's fake Chamber Web link under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Neither the Chamber's copyright nor its trademark claims have legal merit, countered Matthew Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the Yes Men. "It seems rather clear that this is a fair use of copyright material," he said. "This is for fair comment and criticism."
It's unclear whether the Chamber's legal action may hurt or help. "If your goal here is to end the press cycle, this seems an odd way to do it," noted Zimmerman. The Chamber has publicly sparred with its own members, environmental groups and the White House over climate change. It's also faced a string of negative articles challenging its membership numbers and credibility.
Still, however entertaining, the Yes Men stunt raises questions about misrepresentation in lobbying and when it strays over the line. Clearly the faked letters discussed before the global warming committee last week went too far. Select Committee Chairman Edward Markey, D-Mass., declared himself "outraged," not just at the letters, but at lobbyists' sluggish response.
Bonner blamed the deception on a rogue temp who's since been fired, but said he took full responsibility for the incident. Markey, however, accused coal industry lobbyists of deliberately dragging their feet before informing members of Congress that the letters were fakes, in order to eke out a few more votes on a key House energy vote.
Miller's American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity made "precious little effort to ensure that members of Congress knew that this fraud had been perpetrated," Markey charged.
Miller, president and CEO of the ACCCE, publicly apologized and pledged to take any additional steps the panel requested to set the record straight. For now, his coalition and the lobbyists he hired can only hope the dust settles soon. But given the bare-knuckles nature of energy lobbying fight so far, more controversial tactics are in store. As Pinkham noted: "We're only getting started."