Heightened sensitivity over money-politics nexus comes into focus

Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the leading candidate to become the next House majority leader, has canceled a fundraiser scheduled for next week, underlining the difficulties lawmakers face raising money amid scandal.

For a $5,000 contribution to his political action committee, supporters were invited to join Blunt for a dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in downtown Washington. No more than 30 guests would be allowed to join Blunt, and $150,000 would thus have sluiced into Blunt’s PAC, the Rely on Your Beliefs (ROYB) Fund.

Because there was nothing unusual or illegal about this, Blunt’s cancellation will likely amplify two big questions facing senior lawmakers caught in the splash of the influence-peddling scandal centered on lobbyist Jack Abramoff. First, what type of fundraising is now considered appropriate? Second, how can lawmakers, whose clout in Washington is largely determined by the amount of money they raise for their colleagues, keep raising campaign funds in a critical election year while keeping a safe distance from lobbyists?

“It’s a very volatile situation right now,” said Larry Noble, the executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “The avenue for [members] to raise money is under real scrutiny, and so some members have decided to pull back.”

As evidence of that volatile political landscape, Republican leaders in the House yesterday announced a broad set of reform principles to curb the influence of outside lobbyists on members of Congress. But they did not address any specific restrictions on fundraising activities; instead, Blunt and other members will have to make those decisions on their own after a series of bribery scandals involving lobbyists and members of Congress.

“The optics of what members do now is front and center,” said Ken Gross, a former enforcement lawyer with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). “You don’t want to be seen riding around in a taxicab with a lobbyist to the Willard Hotel.”

Blunt’s decision to cancel the fundraiser comes as he and his two opponents — Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) — are campaigning to become majority leader partly on the strength of their own lobbying-reform platforms. The irony is that these lawmakers are often the ones most plugged in to Washington’s downtown fundraising apparatus.

“The whole culture is based on the ability to raise funds,” Noble said. “Most of the ones who are running for the leadership are very well-connected in this fundraising community.”

Candidates for the leadership and top committee posts in both parties are expected to raise money for their congressional colleagues to win votes within the caucus. Those funds are essential this year, as Democrats hope to unseat a number of sitting Republicans in the House during a critical midterm election. No one knows how many House seats are genuinely competitive or how many more may have become so since the money-politics scandal made national headlines.

“Raising money is important because we self-finance” our campaigns, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) said during an interview about his own ability to raise campaign cash. “It’s important for us to raise money for our colleagues if we want to keep our majority.”

After the guilty pleas of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) and a former aide to Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) in separate bribery probes, lawmakers are now under increased scrutiny by the media, watchdog groups and opponents in their rival parties to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest — even if that means canceling legal fundraising events.

“I think you will see a lot less actual fundraising events hosted by lobbyists … until this cycle is over,” one former GOP fundraiser wrote in an e-mail.

The same fundraiser said this is ironic because “PAC money is the cleanest money in the system” because members and PAC directors usually check with FEC attorneys on everything they do.

The atmosphere of concern might cause legislators to introduce too many new restrictions that run the danger of setting up a whole new series of unintended consequences.

“We’re running the danger right now of an overreach,” Gross said. “It’s a terrible climate to legislate.”

Noble speculated that the new rules offered by GOP leaders to curb the influence of outside lobbyists were issued early in the year so that members could return to their fundraising without the specter of scandal hanging over them.

Gross and Noble both pointed out that even legal activities can give the appearance of impropriety.

Former Democratic Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (Texas) sparked a minor uproar in the late 1980s when news leaked of a “breakfast club” he hosted for tax lobbyists who contributed $10,000 to the former Senate Finance Committee chairman’s reelection campaign, even though the events themselves were not illegal, Gross said.

Just yesterday, Rep. John Sweeney’s (R-N.Y.) Democratic opponent, Kirsten Gillibrand, distributed a press release criticizing the veteran Republican for a recent fundraiser he held in Park City, Utah, that raised $2,000 from each lobbyist in attendance. The release does not allege any impropriety but questions Sweeney’s desire “for real reform” after circulating a letter last week asking GOP leaders to hold a full slate of elections.

Blunt’s office said he canceled the event because of a scheduling conflict: It’s his grandson’s third birthday.

Even outside watchdog groups have challenged reporters and voters not to think campaign contributions are illegal. In each of the recent bribery cases, federal prosecutors must prove a direct connection between legislative favors and campaign donations.

McCrery, for one, said he has only been asked for an overt favor once during almost 18 years in the House. A constituent, who had donated $1,000 to McCrery’s reelection campaign, complained that the congressman’s staff had not done enough to help him with a tax problem. McCrery learned that the constituent owed back federal taxes. The individual asked McCrery to clear up the problem, so the soft-spoken Louisiana congressman sent the man a $1,000 check and asked him not to donate money ever again.

Elana Schor contributed to this article.