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Lobbyists' Emergence Reflects Shift in Capital Culture

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006; A01

Corporate lobbyists Mark Valente III and Troup Coronado don't have to hang out in the hallways of Capitol Hill, waiting to buttonhole Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.). Both men have more convenient ways of reaching the lawmaker.

Valente is the treasurer of Shimkus's political action committee, the John S Fund. And Coronado, who lobbies for BellSouth, played host at a Dec. 17 fundraiser for Shimkus at MCI Center. Guests made contributions -- $1,000 per person, $1,500 per couple -- to his reelection campaign, and in turn they got to take in a Bon Jovi performance from the BellSouth suite.

There is nothing exceptional about Valente's relationship with Shimkus, or Coronado's fundraising party. But they do illustrate the capital's changing mores.

Although the excesses of Jack Abramoff have captured the news, a wide range of other practices -- rarely publicized and fully legal -- reflect the steady dismantling of the wall between lobbyists and members of the House and Senate.

Fallout from the Abramoff scandal is likely for a time to chill certain aspects of the capital culture, in which access to power on Capitol Hill is lubricated by lobbyist-funded meals, travel and campaign contributions, according to congressional veterans of both parties. But some public interest advocates believe the relationships between lobbyists and politicians have become so institutionalized in recent years that fundamental change is unlikely, absent changes in the law. Among the examples:

Since 1998, lobbyists have served as treasurers of 79 lawmakers' campaign committees and leadership PACs, according to the Center for Public Integrity. These committees often pay for senators and House members to enjoy such fundraising events as golfing in Palm Springs, Calif., and fishing tournaments off the Florida Keys -- outings at which the lobbyists will also be prominently in attendance.

Major trade associations have bought Capitol Hill townhouses for fundraisers so that lawmakers can quickly go back to cast votes and then return to the event.

At election time, many lobbyists put on a new hat and become political consultants, guiding incumbents to reelection. Afterward these lobbyists return to their traditional roles, being able now to ask for votes from those they helped put in office.

"The border has broken down. Not only has it broken down, it's sort of 'barbarians at the gate,' " said Lawrence F. O'Brien III, a Democratic lobbyist. "There is sort of the naked 'Well, we are one, you are us' type of notion between the members of Congress and the lobbying community downtown."

The change in standards of what is objectionable versus what is commonplace is suggested by a nearly forgotten uproar nearly two decades ago. On Feb. 3, 1987, newspapers disclosed that then-Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had set up a "breakfast club" for lobbyists who donated $10,000 to his campaign committee.

The implied bargain -- money for access -- struck many as just too obvious. Three days later, Bentsen ended the breakfasts and acknowledged that his error of judgment had been "a doozy."

Now, every day Congress is in session, there are lobbyist-organized fundraisers for senators and representatives -- at breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner -- at which the basic transaction is little different than what got Bentsen in hot water. Take Dec. 14, 2005:

Lobbyists for BNSF Railway and United Parcel Service held a luncheon for Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) at the Associated General Contractors townhouse ($1,000 per PAC, $500 a person), according to the Web site for the National Republican Congressional Committee. A few blocks away, according to the NRCC, lobbyists for MasterCard, Time Warner and DuPont honored Rep. J. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) at Tortilla Coast ($1,000). That evening, Promia Inc.'s Adrian Plesha hosted a reception for Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) at his East Capitol Street home -- $5,000 for "sponsors," $1,000 for PACs and $500 for individuals.

The pivotal point in Washington's changing culture, according to lobbyists and congressional ethics analysts, came in 1995, shortly after Newt Gingrich and his "Republican Revolutionaries" roared to power in the 1994 midterm elections. Tom DeLay, the new majority whip, and his allies began the "K Street Project" -- the pressuring of trade associations and lobbying firms to hire Republican, and to contribute to Republican campaigns if they wanted access to key leaders and committee chairmen in the House.

"We're just following the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends. We don't like to deal with people who are trying to kill the revolution. We know who they are," DeLay told The Washington Post.

DeLay announced last week he will not try to regain his former post of majority leader, even if he is cleared in a Texas trial over allegations of illegal fundraising. But his absence does not necessarily mean the lobbyist-lawmaker relationship will change on Capitol Hill.

One lawmaker hoping to move up in the GOP leadership is Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He maintains the lobbyist-financed Freedom Project, with a lobbyist as treasurer and an all-lobbyist executive board. It has raised $5.94 million over 10 years and has contributed $3.26 million to fellow Republicans.

Some 2003-2004 expenditures include $21,990 at Sam and Harry's steakhouse, $16,189 in fees at Manassas's Robert Trent Jones Golf Club and $5,990 for lodging at La Quinta Resort & Club near Palm Springs.

"What used to be considered in Washington conduct to be hidden was turned into conduct to be flaunted," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group seeking campaign finance changes.

Although DeLay was a catalyst, some of the cultural changes he represented preceded him. And Democrats participated with vigor.

In 1981, then-Rep. Tony Coelho (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, began to "marry" businesses seeking legislation with Democratic lobbyists, especially former staffers. The maneuver gave the businesses better access and turned many into contributors to the DCCC.

That same year, the Republican firm Black, Manafort and Stone became the first in which partners served both as political consultants to candidates for federal office and lobbyists on behalf of corporations and trade associations.

Lobbyists also have unprecedented sway with the national party organizations. They held all the top positions at the 2004 GOP convention in New York.

The House GOP leadership has also brought them directly into the legislating process, institutionalizing the practice of using large networks of lobbyists to help "whip" bills by keeping vote counts and finding ways to persuade wavering members to vote with the caucus.

Recent years have even shown how the traditional lobbyist-lawmaker financial pipeline can flow in both directions. In addition to helping legislators raise reelection money, lobbyists have received large sums from politicians' PACs for vaguely defined services.

The soon-to-be-closed Alexander Strategy Group, for instance, received funds from committees associated with acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and DeLay -- $386,552, and $392,740, respectively.

DeLay's wife, Christine, and three former top aides -- Edwin A. Buckham, James W. Ellis and Tony C. Rudy -- worked for Alexander Strategy Group. Gregg Hartley, Blunt's former top political aide and now a lobbyist, defended the payments and said the money was paid "to utilize the services of several individuals who assisted with staffing, fundraising, strategy and operational services for the development, implementation and resource generation for a very effective and absolutely legal political campaign committee." Stanford political scientist David Brady said that in terms of overt corruption, this era does not compare to the gilded age of "robber barons" in the 19th century. Simon Cameron, a senator from Pennsylvania at that time, said of his colleagues: "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."

L. Sandy Maisel, director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College, said the issue now is less a matter of criminality or overt corruption than a change in standards: "Congress as an institution now defines as ethical actions that would be derided elsewhere in society."

 2006 The Washington Post Company