Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges

Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges
© iStock

The lobbying industry has donated $545,173 to 2020 presidential campaigns with nearly 80 percent going to Democratic candidates, even as many of those hopefuls vow not to take donations from lobbyists.

Over $114,498 of that has gone to President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE’s re-election while the rest, $430,675, has been given to Democrats, including those who have dropped out of the race, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The total is based on the Federal Election Commission data released on Oct. 16., through third-quarter 2019 fundraising.

ADVERTISEMENT

The numbers paint a complicated picture. Democratic candidates and their progressive allies in the current cycle have put new scrutiny on lobbyists as well as on taking money from other special interest or corporate groups. But that hasn't completely stopped the flow of money to candidates and campaigns.

K Street's top ranks are filled with former Democrats, many with ties to the candidates. And watchdog groups say that while the focus is on federally registered lobbyists, donations from others tied to the industry, such as state- and local-level lobbyists, often trickle through.

“The states are an area that are ripe with influence. In part because it takes lower dollar amounts to influence and people are usually making contributions at a lower level,” Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a watchdog group The Hill.

The Center for Responsive Politics number includes state and local lobbyists, lobbying firm’s political action committees (PACs) as well as people who work at lobbying firms who are not registered – including support staff and lawyers. Lobbyists who are in-house at a corporation are not included in the count.

If a contribution from a federally registered lobbyist was returned by the campaign, it would be subtracted from the calculation, according to the group.

The over $500,000 figure includes both donations to campaigns and money directed to outside groups, like candidates’ political action committees. 

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the center's data, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump says impeachment lawyers were 'really good' MORE has received over $90,000 from the lobbying industry, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRep. Bobby Rush endorses Bloomberg's White House bid Actor Michael Douglas endorses Bloomberg for president Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover-up,' 'national disgrace' MORE (D-Calif.) has received over $75,000, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE has received over $30,000, and Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Booker ahead of Trump impeachment trial: 'History has its eyes on us' Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers gear up for Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.J.) has received over $30,000.

"Vice President Biden does not accept contributions from federal lobbyists and has been a leader throughout his career in working to eliminate the influence of big money in politics," campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told The Hill.

Also, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE (D-Minn.) has received over $20,000, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE (D-Mass.) has received over $16,000 and former Housing Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroJayapal: 'We will end up with another Donald Trump' if the US doesn't elect a progressive Sanders, Warren battle for progressive endorsements Biden says he would consider Castro, O'Rourke for VP, Cabinet positions MORE, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetWarren ad claims Trump fears her most Sanders to headline Iowa event amid impeachment trial On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Sanders defends vote against USMCA | China sees weakest growth in 29 years | Warren praises IRS move on student loans MORE (D-Colo.) and Rep. John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules Elizabeth Warren moves 'bigly' to out-trump Trump DNC goof: Bloomberg should be on debate stage MORE (D-Md.) have all received over $10,000.

Just over $2,000 has gone to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' MORE (I-Vt.) and just under $600 to Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardGabbard knocks Clinton's jab at Sanders: 'This isn't high school' The data is clear: A woman could win in 2020 'I Like Bernie' hashtag trends after Clinton criticizes Sanders MORE (D-Hawaii), while businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll Yang highlights outsider status in Iowa ad ahead of caucuses MORE, and Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Marianne Williamson drops out of 2020 race Bill Press: Don't forget about Amy MORE have all accepted over $250. 

The Gabbard campaign told The Hill they will return the contributions.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We're planning to return the $594 in lobbyist contributions and going forward our policy will be to return any lobbyist contributions over $50. We will rely on the reporting by Open Secrets to help us track this information,” a spokesman told The Hill.

The Buttigieg campaign said it was committed to ensuring campaign finance reforms to crack down on special interest money. 

“As President, Pete will enact critical campaign finance reforms to restore faith in our Democracy, including strengthening the FEC and pushing to overturn Citizens United and Buckley v Valeo,” a spokesman told The Hill.

In response, Warren’s campaign cited their plan, introduced in September, that would ban lobbyists from making political contributions, bundling donations or hosting fundraisers for candidates. Currently, her campaign refuses donations from lobbyists to the federal government and also from foreign agents.

Sanders’ campaign noted that they don't accept donations from corporate lobbyists. The senator introduced a plan in October to would ban donations from federal lobbyists and corporations.

And, Williamson’s campaign said they evaluate contributions on a case by case basis.

Other campaigns declined to comment for the story or did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Unlike most Democrats, Trump, has not shied away from corporate money. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill WeldWilliam (Bill) WeldWeld says Trump wants reporters to 'roam free' in Iran, but not US Trump primary challengers left off Wisconsin ballot Bannon: 'We need the Republican establishment on board' to reelect Trump MORE, the only other Republican presidential contender other than Trump counted in the tally, has accepted over $200.

Still, the donations from those connected to the lobbying industry as a whole pale in comparison to political contributions from other controversial industries. 

The oil and gas industry has donated over $4.5 million on the 2020 election, over $4 million of that going to Trump alone and the pharmaceuticals and health products industry has donated $1.7 million with over $450,000 going to Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Democrats who have pledged not to take money from lobbyists in Washington have returned checks in many cases, but that doesn’t often extend to donations from state and local lobbyists or from people who work at lobbying firms.

State and local lobbyists are seen as different because they do not directly lobby the president or Congress. But critics say that state and local lobbyists are still prominent in the advocacy space. 

"Certainly as we think about decisions that campaigns are making or campaign finance rules that we want, we are paying equal attention to money spend in the federal and state level," said Gilbert from Public Citizen.

ADVERTISEMENT

Gilbert said that as Democratic candidates crack down on special interest money the field of acceptable donors will also narrow.

“Just as we first saw no pharma money or no oil money, and then it became no corporate money. Its logical that the next step might be no state lobbyists,” Gilbert said.

Others noted that optics of accepting campaign contributions from state and local lobbyists are less controversial.

“Candidates understand that contributions from lobbyists are a valid and regulated method of political engagement. This is why we see them taking funds from those at the state and local level, which is sometimes less scrutinized than federal-level campaign contributions,” said Kelly Memphis, manager of government relations and stakeholder engagement for the Public Affairs Council, an association for public affairs professionals.

Memphis also questioned the criticism over accepting lobbying money.

"Candidates often refuse dollars from federal lobbyists and national corporate PACs to keep up appearances in line with the overblown national narrative that these types of contributions are part of a broken system,” Memphis said.

ADVERTISEMENT

But those views have taken hold in the Democratic field, with many candidates proposing tough reforms to cut off lobbyist donations.

Even new entrants are vowing not to take donations from Washington lobbyists. 

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign will not be taking contributions from lobbyists, according to the campaign, and Bloomberg, a billionaire, is self-funding entirely.

Fellow billionaire Tom SteyerTom Fahr SteyerSanders joins Biden atop 2020 Democratic field: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Sanders holds four-point lead on Biden in new California poll MORE is also against taking lobbyist money.

“Tom doesn't take money from lobbyists because he's proposing real structural reforms to break the corporate stranglehold in Washington, like term limits for Members of Congress and national referendums,” spokesman Benjamin Gerdes told The Hill.

The campaign for Gov. Deval PatrickDeval PatrickPatrick backs reparations in unveiling 'Equity Agenda for Black Americans' Buttigieg to attend MLK Day event in South Carolina after facing criticism Deval Patrick knocks lack of diversity in Democratic debate MORE’s (D-Mass.), other new candidate, did not respond to a request for comment.