By Bob Cusack - 06/18/08 07:00 PM EDT
Rep. Chris Cannon’s (R-Utah) House website has documents describing credit card fees that are nearly identical to the talking points of an industry coalition that is backing his legislation on the issue.
The employer group, called the Merchants Payments Coalition (MPC), is lobbying for a bill introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Cannon that would make significant changes to how credit card transaction fees on merchants are set. The so-called interchange fees have set up a fierce lobbying battle between merchants and credits cards as well as the banking industry.
Cannon does not cite the MPC on his website.
In another post, Cannon’s site asks, “What are Interchange fees?” The first four paragraphs, except for headlines, are the same as the industry group’s white paper. The last two paragraphs of the Cannon answer are similar to a posting on creditcards.com . The only difference is that Cannon’s site uses a “which” instead of “that.”
Cannon’s spokesman Fred Piccolo said the lawmaker’s staff, not Cannon himself, posted the information on credit card fees. In an e-mail, he said the postings were put up “as an informational tool for those interested in the bill.”
MPC represents some of the nation’s retailers, including department stores, supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores and gas stations. Members include the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), National Retail Federation, American Petroleum Institute and Society of American Florists (SAF).
Days before and after the Conyers/Cannon bill was introduced on March 6, MPC member companies and lobbyists donated thousands of dollars to Cannon’s campaign account. The political action committees of the NACS and the FMI each gave $2,500 to him on March 4 while the SAF’s PAC donated $1,000 on March 10. Wal-Mart’s PAC contributed $2,500 to Cannon three days before the bill was unveiled. A couple of lobbyists representing the coalition also gave money to Cannon in March.
It is not unusual for lobbying groups to donate to members who share their policy ideals but congressional experts say it is unusual to post an outside group’s information verbatim on a member’s website.
Cannon is in a tough primary contest with Jason Chaffetz, a former aide to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R). Cannon, a millionaire who has not dipped into his personal funds, appears short on available campaign cash after spending more than $631,000 in the 2008 cycle. As of June 4, Cannon had less than $10,000 cash on hand and Chaffetz had $65,000 cash on hand, according to CQMoneyline.
Chaffetz nearly won the nomination outright last month at the Utah Republican Convention, falling just shy of the necessary 60 percent delegate vote to clinch the nomination. Cannon finished second and will face off with Chaffetz on Tuesday in the primary, which has gotten bitter in recent weeks as Chaffetz has accused Cannon of being cozy with special interest groups and Cannon has repeatedly noted that Chaffetz does not live in the district he is hoping to represent.
The Hill was alerted to the similarities between Cannon’s House website and the MPC white papers from a source who does not have any ties to the Chaffetz campaign.
The posting of white papers or talking points by outside groups on House member websites does not appear to break the chamber’s rules. House sites cannot advertise for individuals or corporations and cannot use copyrighted material without permission. The MPC does not indicate on its website that its white papers have been copyrighted.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said it is common for lobbying interests to provide members with background information on an issue, but added lawmakers should cite the group “to avoid accusations of plagiarism.”
“For transparency purposes,” McGehee said, “it’s standard operating procedure when you use an outside group’s research, you give them credit.”
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said, “This is your garden-variety plagiarism … While there are no congressional rules that would seem to prohibit this kind of plagiarism, nor copyright infringement, it certainly lacks ethical candor.”
Holman said it is “egregious” that Cannon is “relying exclusively on the writings of lobbyists … as his own on his congressional webpage.”
Piccolo, Cannon’s spokesman, said, “[w]e will continue to link to the best information we have about the issues Rep. Cannon is dealing with, whether corporate opponents or self-appointed experts like it or not. Information is vast online and Rep. Cannon believes we should provide his constituents with the best information available. Rep. Cannon is proud to be supported by America’s small businesses and consumer advocates and this baseless insinuation shows how scared opponents of an open, transparent fee-setting process really are.”
Cannon’s website is more advanced than those of many House members. On his House homepage, Cannon notes his website won an award in 2007. The site includes video, a blog that Cannon updates regularly and links to his YouTube channel.
An MPC spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
The Conyers/Cannon bill enjoys rare bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee, one of the most partisan panels in the lower chamber. The legislation has 38 cosponsors, ranging from liberal Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). Critics of the measure, including Visa, Mastercar, and banking groups say it is unnecessary and have labeled it “a price control bill.”
At a May 15 Judiciary Committee hearing, the MPC hailed the bill as “a market-based remedy” that addresses “the anticompetitive and dysfunctional interchange scheme that the banks have designed and perpetuated.”