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Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) might be retiring from Congress, but so far they aren’t taking a break from fundraising.
Both Senators announced earlier this year that they would not seek re-election in 2012, but the two have continued to hit up potential donors on K Street and around D.C. for contributions to their leadership political action committees.
K Street’s response: We’d rather not.
“I’m not supporting this stuff,” said one high-profile lobbyist who has been solicited by the retirees. “People are stunned. It just doesn’t seem quite right.”
Conrad’s DAKPAC held a breakfast Wednesday at Capitol Hill’s Charlie Palmer Steak restaurant; the minimum donation to attend was $1,000, according to an invitation. Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, are headlining an April 5 evening event at D.C.’s Bibiana Osteria & Enoteca. The suggested contribution to Lieberman’s Reuniting Our Country PAC is $2,500.
It’s difficult to find out why retiring Members continue to work the fundraising circuit. An official in Lieberman’s Senate press office did not return a call seeking comment, and a fundraiser for Conrad said she would have someone get in touch, but no one had by press time.
Members who are not running for re-election can continue to raise money for their leadership PACs to help their in-cycle colleagues, or they can give the money to party committees. They’re also free to donate the money to charity. In fact, they can use the money any way they see fit.
“The campaign finance laws do not prohibit you from using leadership funds for personal use,” explained former Federal Election Commission General Counsel Larry Noble, who is now a counsel in the political law department at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom. Leadership PACs allow departing Members “to remain politically active and to remain a player.”
If Members decamp for K Street, as ex-lawmakers they can continue giving political cash to sitting Members through their PACs — something ordinary lobbyists privately said they resent. In effect, the money lobbyists contribute to ex-lawmaker PACs is used against them in the competitive game of developing business.
It’s all that uncertainty about how retired Members can use the donations that has most lobbyists opting not to give their campaign cash to those preparing for careers off the Hill.
“Why wouldn’t I give to someone who’s in cycle, rather than someone who’s leaving?” one Democratic lobbyist said. “Granted, they’ll be around for the next two years. But if you’ve announced you’re retiring, when there’s so many people in need, why wouldn’t they just host an event for Members they want to help?”
Despite the hurdles, fundraiser Mike Fraioli of Fraioli & Associates said sitting Members, even ones on their way out, can most likely find sources of political cash. “As long as you’re here, you may not be able to convince any new folks who haven’t previously contributed, but folks who have previously given, they may not want to max out, but it wouldn’t be unusual for them to give you a check,” he said.
And it might be an easier sell for Lieberman and Conrad, who are committee chairmen. Conrad heads the Budget panel, while Lieberman runs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“The idea that you’re helping to get them re-elected is gone, but you still want to remain in their good graces,” former FEC lawyer Noble explained.
It is not unprecedented for Members who have already announced their retirement plans to hold events. Last summer, then-Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) held a golf fundraiser for his Leadership 21 PAC. That set individual donors back $2,500 for the round, according to a Roll Call report at the time.
Tanner, who this year joined the lobbying firm Prime Policy Group, did not return a call seeking comment about his leadership PAC, but FEC records indicate that he has no cash on hand.
Former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), now a lobbyist with Patton Boggs, continued to give out campaign contributions from his New Republican Majority Fund PAC as recently as the 2010 midterm elections, according to FEC reports.
The PAC’s treasurer of record, Bret Boyles, did not return a call seeking comment.
When former Members who become lobbyists have a big pot of political cash to throw around, it can help them launch their lobbying practices.
“I think it’s nuts that Members who are not running for re-election are raising money for their leadership PACs,” one Republican lobbyist said. “They’ll probably use the funds to help their lobbying practice.”
But not everyone does.
Ex-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has joined the lobbying and law firm Arent Fox, donated the bulk of his Great Plains Leadership Fund PAC to start the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth, aide Pam Gulleson said.