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Lawmakers Embrace Lobbyist Cash

There's talk on Capitol Hill of keeping an arm'slength relationship, and then there's reality.

March 05, 2006|Richard Simon and Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill is abuzz these days with talk about keeping lobbyists at a distance. But when it comes to the political cash they can generate, interest in keeping them near remains strong.

This weekend, Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) is hosting a $5,000-per-person gathering -- which invitations said would feature golf, fishing, snorkeling and "much, much more" -- in the Florida Keys. McKeon anticipated that many of the guests would be lobbyists.

Also this weekend, lobbyists are among those at "Winterfest '06," where supporters of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) can ski and snowmobile at the exclusive Yellowstone Club in his home state.

And in Washington, scores of less flashy, but still lucrative, fundraisers will be held in the coming weeks for Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike. Lobbyists, along with clients and friends, will constitute many of those in attendance.

The expensive events are perfectly legal. But they have raised questions about whether Congress is missing the point as it responds to the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful influence peddler who this year pleaded guilty to defrauding clients and conspiring to bribe lawmakers.

As has become clear in recent days, legislation with the best chance of passing does not tackle campaign finance issues, but would require members of Congress and lobbyists to more fully detail their contacts with each other.

Some lawmakers and many watchdog groups say a failure to address what they see as the source of lobbyists' greatest influence -- political contributions -- would be a glaring oversight.

"If we're truly serious about getting to the core of the problem, we need to look not only at lobbying reform but at campaign finance reform," Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) said.

But Dodd agreed with other members of a key Senate committee last week that trying to limit the fundraising clout of lobbyists as part of efforts to overhaul congressional ethics rules would virtually ensure that neither takes place.

Figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that studies political fundraising, illustrate the growing importance of lobbyists in producing donations.

The group found that lobbyists' contributions to 2004 congressional candidates totaled $22 million -- nearly five times as much as a decade earlier. And that figure does not include the substantial amounts that lobbyists persuaded others to give.

Many lawmakers and their aides say they see nothing wrong with relying heavily on lobbyists for fundraising help, so long as contributions are disclosed.

"From the beginning of the Republic, lawmakers have interacted with people who lobby," said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), a member of the House GOP leadership. "Either you abide by the law [regulating such relationships] or you don't."

Watchdog groups, however, contend that under existing rules, it is hard to gauge the extent to which lobbyists prod clients and friends to make donations.

Alex Knott, head of the Lobby Watch project for the Center for Public Integrity, said lobbyists had "huge cadres of people that they do business with on a daily basis who want political favors. They can tap these donors" for contributions.

Lobbyists' effectiveness in spurring others to give is shown by how often lawmakers name them to fundraising positions. Knott's group estimates that since 1998, at least 79 members of Congress have hired lobbyists to head or act as treasurer of their campaign committees or political action committees.

With an eye on these trends, Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, said a two-pronged approach to reform was needed.

He has recommended significant cuts in contributions lobbyists can make to House and Senate candidates or the political action committees set up by members of Congress. His plan would limit their donations to a candidate to $200 per election, down from the current $2,100 cap. The maximum contribution per year to political action committees would be $500, down from $5,000.

Wertheimer's proposal also would bar lobbyists from soliciting or delivering contributions and from leading candidates' political committees.

Although there seems to be little backing in Congress for such moves, some lawmakers are voluntarily changing their fundraising practices in response to the Abramoff scandal.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) canceled fundraisers for his political action committee that were scheduled at resorts in Hawaii and Orlando, Fla.

His campaign spokesman, John McGovern, said Hastert hoped other lawmakers would follow his lead.

"The speaker believes that he should lead by example," McGovern said, adding that Hastert had encouraged lawmakers in both parties to "avoid participating in events that although perfectly legal, may create an appearance that ... can be misconstrued by the public."

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