When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), her top staffer, a dozen Democratic challengers and scores of lobbyists gather later this month on the roof of the Jones Day Building at the foot of Capitol Hill, it will mark the second time in as many months that lobbyists have opened their wallets at the request of a senior Democratic staffer.
While Pelosi will undoubtedly cut the most famous figure on the seventh floor that night, her chief of staff, John Lawrence, is chairing the event. He receives top billing on the invitation, which was sent downtown this week from his e-mail address at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The fundraiser, for which lobbyists are asked to write personal checks worth $100 or $250, comes on the heels of another event that featured access to senior House Democratic aides as its primary draw.
On June 12, lobbyists willing to cough up $1,000 each for the DCCC filed into the Hotel Monaco downtown for a sit-down dinner shoulder-to-shoulder with leadership staffers and committee staff directors. That event, chaired by Yelberton Watkins, chief of staff to Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), pulled in nearly $250,000 for the party committee.
These events are not unique. On June 23, lobbyists and Senate chiefs of staff gathered at the Mott House, the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for an event to benefit the DSCC. Senate Democratic chiefs have staged similar events on a semi-regular basis in recent years, participants said.
And last December, House Democratic staff directors and chiefs of staff helped round up paying guests for a DCCC event at the Hotel Monaco.
Republicans, likewise, have been offering up staffers as fundraising bait. Last year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee staged an event at Union Station featuring chiefs of staff. They reprised it this spring, with an event on the roof of the office building at 101 Constitution Ave. NW.
Defenders of the practice note that chiefs of staff, at least, frequently carry a political portfolio on top of their policy duties. Top staffers for lawmakers of both parties are often on the campaign payroll and play an important year-round role helping their bosses fill their campaign coffers.
These types of fundraisers are completely appropriate, and we appreciate everything senior staff does to strengthen and expand the majority, DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. Staffers represent their bosses views in their official capacity extremely well. These are off-time, volunteer activities, she said, adding that participating staffers are committed to strengthening the Democratic majority. Representatives for the NRSC and DSCC did not respond to requests for comment.
Others, including some lobbyists who attended last months DCCC fundraiser, said such events can put both solicitors and donors in an uncomfortable position. They ask professionals who are usually careful to keep their daytime conversations limited to legislative matters to engage over the give-and-take of campaign money.
It did seem a little odd, said one lobbyist who went to the DCCC event last month. Added another, I have mixed feelings about it, but it works. Its totally legal, but it probably pushes the envelope a little bit.
A Republican lobbyist, who attended the NRSC event earlier this year, called the practice a gray area.
Its a little uncomfortable. Obviously there needs to be some separation between the money side of politics and the policy side of politics. Thats easy enough for Members of Congress because theyre also candidates. That dance gets a little more diffuse at the staff level, he said. But if both sides are doing it its mutually assured destruction.
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