Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges

Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges
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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 TrumpMajority of Americans in new poll say it would be bad for the country if Trump ran in 2024 ,800 bottle of whiskey given to Pompeo by Japan is missing Liz Cheney says her father is 'deeply troubled' about the state of the Republican Party 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.


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. 


According to the center's data, former Vice President Joe Biden has received over $90,000 from the lobbying industry, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisA permanent Child Tax Credit expansion will yield dividends to taxpayers Kamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban MORE (D-Calif.) has received over $75,000, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegSunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate Sunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Chasten Buttigieg: DC 'almost unaffordable' MORE has received over $30,000, and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerHillicon Valley: Senators highlight security threats from China during rare public hearing | Facebook suspends accounts of NYU researchers who've criticized platform Democrats urge Amazon, Facebook to drop requests for Khan recusal Women urge tech giants to innovate on office return MORE (D-N.J.) has received over $30,000.

"Vice President BidenJoe BidenBiden nominates Mark Brzezinski to be U.S. ambassador to Poland 10 dead after overloaded van crashes in south Texas Majority of New York state Assembly support beginning process to impeach Cuomo: AP MORE 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 KlobucharDemocrats barrel toward August voting rights deadline Manchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights Hillicon Valley: Democrats urge tech CEOs to combat Spanish disinformation | Amazon fined 6M by EU regulators MORE (D-Minn.) has received over $20,000, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenHillicon Valley: Senators highlight security threats from China during rare public hearing | Facebook suspends accounts of NYU researchers who've criticized platform Democrats urge Amazon, Facebook to drop requests for Khan recusal Senate Democrats to introduce measure taxing major polluters MORE (D-Mass.) has received over $16,000 and former Housing Secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroBiden calls on Congress to extend eviction ban with days until expiration Cruz trolled on Twitter for slamming Democrats who fled Texas Julian Castro joins NBC and MSNBC as political analyst MORE, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals How Sen. Graham can help fix the labor shortage with commonsense immigration reform For true American prosperity, make the child tax credit permanent MORE (D-Colo.) and Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyDirect air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy Lobbying world Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Rodney Davis MORE (D-Md.) have all received over $10,000.

Just over $2,000 has gone to Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Progressives like Turner should reconsider running as Democrats Senate Democrats to introduce measure taxing major polluters Biden called Shontel Brown to congratulate her after Ohio primary win MORE (I-Vt.) and just under $600 to Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardTulsi Gabbard on Chicago mayor's decision to limit media interviews to people of color: 'Anti-white racism' Fox News says network and anchor Leland Vittert have 'parted ways' New co-chairs named for congressional caucus for millennials MORE (D-Hawaii), while businessman Andrew YangAndrew YangPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Kings launch voting rights effort honoring John Lewis Eric Adams to meet with Biden on curbing gun violence MORE, and Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' Marianne Williamson calls on Biden to drop efforts to extradite Assange Susan Sarandon and Marianne Williamson call for justice in Steven Donziger case 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) WeldThe Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? Ralph Gants, chief justice of Massachusetts supreme court, dies at 65 The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden visits Kenosha | Trump's double-voting suggestion draws fire | Facebook clamps down on election ads 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.


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.


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 SteyerOvernight Energy: 'Eye of fire,' Exxon lobbyist's comments fuel renewed attacks on oil industry | Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline | More than 75 companies ask Congress to pass clean electricity standard Celebrities push Biden to oppose controversial Minnesota pipeline Six things to watch as California heads for recall election 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 PatrickOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court sides with oil companies in Baltimore case| White House environmental justice advisers express opposition to nuclear, carbon capture projects | Biden administration to develop performance standards for federal buildings Approving Kristen Clarke's nomination should be a no-brainer To unite America, Biden administration must brace for hate MORE’s (D-Mass.), other new candidate, did not respond to a request for comment.