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Lobbyists groan as fundraising cap falls

Greg Nash

A collective groan went up on K Street Wednesday as the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits on donations to candidate and party committees.

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In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court said the cap on an individual's overall campaign contributions infringed on First Amendment rights. The ruling clears the way for donors to donate the maximum amount to as many candidates and political parties as they wish during a two-year election cycle.

That’s a dispiriting outcome for lobbyists, who are fixtures on the fundraising circuit but complain about being inundated with constant phone calls and emails asking for donations.

The ruling means that a common K Street excuse for brushing off fundraising requests — that they’ve already “maxed out” their donations under the cap — is now moot.

“The Supreme Court didn't give me more money. I have a budget. I don't have unlimited funds,” said Steve Elmendorf, president of lobby firm Elmendorf | Ryan.

A prime Democratic donor, Elmendorf has already made $97,000 in campaign contributions for the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Several lobbyists typically come close to reaching the aggregate limit in campaign giving every two years. The Supreme Court ruling could allow them to expand their influence by giving more, but K Streeters told The Hill that they weren’t looking forward to revved-up fundraising pressure.

“You just can't afford to spend more money than that,” said Pat Raffaniello, a principal at Raffaniello & Associates, about the old aggregate limit.

“Lobbyists not happy...only increases their $$$ exposure to fundraising calls,” tweeted Paul Equale, a Democratic consultant who has registered to lobby in the past.

K Street money is only a small portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have flowed into the campaign system in recent years. Nonetheless, lobbyists remain an important fundraising base for lawmakers, who have long relied on the influence industry's rainmakers to “bundle” donations for them.

Elmendorf said the high court ruling is “bad for the system.”

“There's too much money already,” Elmendorf said. “Because it removes the caps, individual senators and members can now ask more people for more money. So if you think they spend too much time fundraising now, that is only going to increase.”

Before the court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, donors could only give $123,200 overall — $48,600 to all candidates and $74,600 to all PACs and parties — for the 2014 cycle. That number could now rise to more than $3.6 million, according to watchdog groups.

Raffaniello said there are only a few lobbyists who reach the overall cap on campaign contributions each election cycle.

“Those couple dozen are going to have to get the nerve to say, ‘Hey, I have given enough,’ ” said Raffaniello, a Republican lobbyist and significant contributor. “Getting rid of the cap is not going to affect the great majority of lobbyists. There are more people who say that they have maxed out than have actually maxed out.” 

Tony Podesta, chairman of Podesta Group, said prolific campaign donors will be under more pressure than ever before.

“Very few people reach the aggregate limit but for those of us who do, the opportunity to give more to candidates will be a mixed blessing to say the least,” said Podesta, a major Democratic Party donor who often maxes out each election cycle.

One Republican lobbyist and major donor said he often used the “max out” excuse to opt out of fundraiser invitations.

“That number was tailor-made for me. It was very comfortable. My guess is I will give the same, maybe a little more,” said the lobbyist. “It was a convenient excuse at the end of a cycle.”

The McCutcheon ruling is likely to intensify the already frantic fundraising activity inside the Beltway. The Sunlight Foundation has compiled 381 fundraiser invitations for 2014 so far.

“It's a happy day for Johnny's Half Shell, Charlie Palmer's steakhouse and other venues that are popular on the political fundraiser circuit,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor at the Sunlight Foundation. “It's already crazy and it's just going to get crazier.”

Public interest groups blasted the decision on Wednesday, arguing it will only boost the sway of the wealthy and powerful in Washington. In a statement, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said the Supreme Court “continued on its march to destroy the nation’s campaign finance laws, which were enacted to prevent corruption and protect the integrity of our democracy.”

Critics said the decision could lead to million-dollar checks flying into party coffers. In his dissent, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer sketched out a scenario where one donor could write a $3.6 million check to one joint fundraising committee that would then be divided up between candidates.

That kind of fundraising pull could help strengthen political parties, which have often been drowned out by the unlimited spending power of outside groups such as super-PACs.

“I will imagine the national party committees will put together some giving program to join a leadership club that you pledge to the Speaker or the Minority Leader that you will give to 10, 20 or 30 members the max individual amount,” Raffaniello said.

Despite lobbyists’ gripes, K Street has a chance to gain even more face time with lawmakers by upping their campaign giving.  

“The importance of lobbyists as campaign donors will be exacerbated because they are a known and reliable source of hard money contributions,” said Sarah Bryner, the Center for Responsive Politics's research director.

“Lobbyists will have more opportunities to influence members of Congress but might have mixed feelings about the decision because they can no longer claim to be maxed out.”