Gifts are out, so now watchdogs target lobbyists' campaign giving

Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D) loves his hometown basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs. New gift rules meant he couldn’t attend last night’s game against the Washington Wizards on a lobbyist’s dime. Not directly, anyway.

Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D) loves his hometown basketball team, the San Antonio Spurs. New gift rules meant he couldn’t attend last night’s game against the Washington Wizards on a lobbyist’s dime. Not directly, anyway.

Gonzalez’s campaign committee reserved an executive suite, at a cost of around $3,500, and invited lobbyists to attend. Twenty to 30 lobbyists were expected to watch the game with Gonzalez, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Ticket prices started at $1,500 for an individual lobbyist, more for a political action committee (PAC).

“In addition to contributing to my reelection effort, the only condition required of an attendee is that they cheer for the Spurs,” Gonzalez joked.

His is hardly the only option for a lobbyist these days. The Republican House campaign committee lists dozens of upcoming fundraisers on its site. Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Democratic Reps. Gene GreenGene GreenIn praise of trauma care—dozens saved by heroes of Orlando’s level one trauma center Dems who sat out the sit-in offer array of reasons GOP surprises with push for smaller ObamaCare changes MORE of Texas and Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota were to hold events next week, lobbyists told The Hill.

Efforts to pass sweeping new ethics and lobbying rules that seek to break the bonds between lawmakers and lobbyists have won widespread praise from good-government groups.

But the never-ending money chase has some advocates hoping the reform efforts are just the start of a discussion that will lead to new restrictions on what lobbyists can give, a reform congressional leaders so far have largely ignored, with the ultimate goal of total public financing of federal campaigns.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a government watchdog, said groups like his had called for new restrictions on lobbyists’ fundraising activities, such as prohibitions on soliciting and packaging money for candidates.

“But there was no consideration of that in these bills,” he said. “It’s part of a longer-term issue in terms of campaign-finance reform.”

Wertheimer and others are quick to note what they think is good about the reform efforts in Congress that Democrats have pushed early in their new majorities.

Advocates particularly like new disclosure rules in the bill passed by the Senate that would require lobbyists to disclose when they bundle campaign checks — the gathering of donations from various contributors to present to a grateful candidate.

Lobbyists would also have to disclose fundraisers they have sponsored, under the Senate bill.

The chief aim now for public advocacy groups is to make sure the House passes the Senate’s tough bill.

But even as they lobby for that measure, there is some thought of what comes next. Groups such as Common Cause and Public Citizen still advocate for public financing of congressional campaigns as a way to eliminate the importance fundraising now plays in the political process.

Democrats have been more inclined to support public-financing measures as a way to clean up a system many Americans believe is corrupt. Now that they control Congress, is a public-financing measure on the verge of passing?

“When pigs fly,” according to one Democratic lobbyist.

“There is just too much easy money to be had by both parties for them to actually get serious like that.”

In private conversations, lobbyists say they would welcome public financing if for no other reason than they could skip the nightly fundraising receptions and get home earlier.

But they also acknowledge they would be giving up a key tool they use to gain access to members.

“We’re happy to help people like Gonzalez,” one energy lobbyist said.

This summer and fall Craig Holman, who directs Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, shopped around a memo that would have reduced, not eliminated, the role lobbyists play in raising money.

Congress Watch has estimated that lobbyists provide around 5 percent of direct donations to federal candidates. But with bundling and fundraising, the money is 10 times that amount, Holman said.

His memo proposed a cap on contributions from lobbyists and lobbying-firm PACs, and a prohibition on lobbyists and firms from “soliciting, arranging or delivering” contributions to candidates.

Helpfully, he even wrote the bill language — all for naught. “I wasn’t able to get anyone interested in this,” Holman said, “It’s not on the agenda.”

Like Wertheimer, Holman voices support for the Senate bill.

As in other reform efforts, states are ahead of Congress in restricting fundraising. Twelve states have laws that limit what a lobbyist can give: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin.

There are 16 other states that prohibit lawmakers from raising money from anyone during the legislative sessions.

But prohibiting lawmakers from raising money while they debate and pass legislation is easier at the state level — most sessions run only a few months, unlike Congress, which is in session throughout the year, with recesses scattered throughout. And campaigns for state legislatures are much less expensive than those for federal office.

Prohibiting lobbyists from contributing to campaigns would likely run afoul of the law, even advocates admit. But Holman believes there is legal precedent for some restriction.

“Courts have shown a much greater leniency toward tailoring such bans to particular situations in which the potential for corruption may arise,” his memo to lawmakers said.

Insurance officials are prevented from contributing to the candidacies of insurance commissioners. Similarly, some states that have had corruption problems ban top casino officials from contributing to the campaigns of state officials.

The activities of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pled guilty to corruption charges, and then-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.), who admitted to accepting bribes from lobbyists, may be aberrations, Holman said. But he believes the public perception that lobbyists have undue influence on the political process, underscored by those two instances, is enough to warrant new limits on campaign giving.