Few members of Congress are disclosing that lobbyists are helping them raise campaign cash despite a new law that was supposed to shed light on the ties between lawmakers and the capital’s influence brokers, an Associated Press review found.
Though lobbyist-hosted fundraisers are workaday events in Washington — typically advertised to political insiders by fax and word of mouth — only about two dozen lawmakers have reported lobbyists raising money for them.
Many more have escaped disclosure. Lobbyists identified as hosts on at least 195 congressional fundraising invitations have yet to be publicly disclosed as fundraisers by the candidates who benefited, the review found. AP checked invitations that it and the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation independently obtained against campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission and lobbyist registrations compiled by the Senate.
The review looked at fundraisers held from March 19 through June, the first time period covered in FEC rules that put the lobbyist-fundraising section of the 2007 ethics law into effect this year.
The analysis found that the prominent display of a lobbyist as a host on a lawmaker’s fundraising invitation isn’t enough to trigger the law’s disclosure requirement.
To find out why so much lobbyist help remains off the books, it’s helpful to separate how Congress portrayed the ethics law from what the law actually says and how Washington really works.
Congress passed the ethics law in response to public disgust over an influence-peddling scandal involving disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his lobbying team and lawmakers from both parties. Its Democratic proponents portrayed the law as making good on a 2006 campaign promise to clean up Congress, limiting and laying bare to the public the many ways in which lobbyists seek to curry favor with lawmakers, including fundraising.
“In sending the most sweeping ethics and lobbying reform in history to the president, we are giving the American people a government as good and honest as the people it represents,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the Senate vote in August 2007.
“Today, with passage of the Honest Leadership, Open Government Act, we draw back the curtains, throw up the windows and let the sunshine in,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said when the House passed the legislation that July.
The law itself doesn’t go that far. When it comes to disclosing lobbyist fundraising for lawmakers, there are so many loopholes that it basically amounts to an honor system.
If a lobbyist takes it upon himself to collect all the money he solicits for a candidate and either forwards it to the campaign himself or directs someone else to do so — and raises more than $16,000, not counting contributions from himself and his spouse — the member of Congress has to report it.
If not, the disclosure requirement is only triggered if the congressional candidate chooses to formally recognize him as a fundraiser. If the candidate takes specific steps to confer some sort of recognition and the lobbyist raises more than $16,000 from people besides himself and his wife, the lawmaker is supposed to report it.
Recognition could include keeping a list of donations solicited by the lobbyist or, after a certain amount of money is raised, honoring the lobbyist with a memento or special title, like former President George W. Bush’s “ranger” designation for his top fundraisers.
If a lawmaker and lobbyist want to avoid public scrutiny of the fundraising, the lobbyist has only to solicit the money but not handle its physical delivery to the campaign, and the lawmaker has only to avoid creating a paper trail crediting the money raised to the lobbyist or formally honoring the lobbyist as a fundraiser.
If a fundraiser is sponsored by someone who works for a business, union or trade association that employs lobbyists or for a lobbying firm, but isn’t a lobbyist himself, the lawmaker doesn’t have to disclose the help. A member of Congress can hold a fundraiser at a lobbying firm or lobbyist’s house without having to report it.
The undisclosed lobbyist fundraising benefited Democrats and Republicans alike. For example, lobbyists Stan Skocki and Michael Rose, whose clients include American Airlines and Verizon Wireless, appeared as hosts on a fundraising invitation for Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., vice chairman of the House Rules Committee. Lobbyists Wayne Berman, Ron Kaufman and Bill Simmons hosted a fundraising dinner at Kaufman’s Washington home for Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, the top Republican on the Senate Rules Committee and a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The circumstances under which a member of Congress is legally bound to disclose a lobbyist’s fundraising are so narrow that, had the law been in effect during Abramoff’s lobbying days, it wouldn’t have exposed much, if any, of his congressional fundraising money trail.
Throwing fundraisers for members of Congress can be good for a lobbyist’s business.
Soliciting campaign money is a common way to gain access to politicians and build relationships with them and their staffs. Many fundraising invitations include a rundown of the lawmaker’s committee memberships and leadership posts, a reminder to potential donors why it might be worth giving $500 per person to attend, the typical going rate.
Beyond the benefits of face time with lawmakers and the gratitude they are bound to feel for fundraising help, the mere presence of a lobbyist’s name at the top of an invitation signals to everybody who matters — competitors, potential clients and the broader Washington power structure — that he is connected enough to find a way to get a powerful member of Congress into the room.
On the Net:
Federal Election Commission reports: http://www.fec.gov/finance/disclosure/BundledContributions.shtml
Sunshine Foundation: http://politicalpartytime.org/