Money may not buy happiness or love, but it sure comes in handy for lobbyists who thrive on access to Members of Congress.
An elite network of K Streeters is on track to hitting the $117,000 limit that individuals are allowed to give federal candidates, PACs and party committees in the current campaign cycle, according to an analysis of federal records by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Their largess wins donors appreciation trips to venues such as Martha’s Vineyard and intimate dinners with lawmakers.
The rise of super PACs and a spate of closely contested races brought about by redistricting have intensified the political money chase. Still, lobbyists who tap their own bank accounts to give the maximum constitute the “standouts, the uber lobbyists,” according to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the CRP.
Top givers say contributing gives them unparalleled access to policymakers and a chance to fulfill party loyalties. With more than six months remaining in the cycle, the 25 most generous lobbyists have already given in excess of $2.4 million, according to the analysis.
“The reality is that political events are some of the better opportunities to have longer conversations with Members of Congress,” said Kelly Bingel, a partner with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “It’s less about a specific issue for a client. It’s about getting to know them as a person and having them get to know me as a person.”
Like most of the biggest donors, Bingel, a Democrat, gave almost exclusively to her party’s coffers, according to the CRP’s analysis for Roll Call.
“I’m in the business, obviously, representing clients, but I’m also a clear partisan Democrat, and I’m a believer in my party and its principles,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (Calif.), who works at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
Fazio said the peril some incumbents may face from redistricting has driven up the number of appeals he gets. “It’s one of those election years with a lot on the line and a lot of anxiety,” he said. “I start giving and before you know, I run out of money and then my wife decides to give.”
Ditto for top-giving Republicans in the influence business. Ken Kies, managing director of the Federal Policy Group, said both he and his wife, a retired K Streeter, are inching close to the $117,000 limit. Kies said he receives 50 to 100 solicitations every day.
“You get these invites, and you think you’ve just gotten something from a travel agent,” he said. “Fundraising for some people has become a Travelocity experience because literally you could go somewhere every weekend if you wanted to write a check: In winter, it’s skiing. Summer, it’s golfing. You could go to the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the Final Four, you name it.”
Kies said he stays close to home and frequents monthly dinners organized by the National Republican Senatorial Committee for major donors. “Typically, there are two or three Senators and a crowd of never more than 10, or at most 15, people,” he said.
That kind of interaction is priceless. It also distinguishes major lobbyist donors from those K Streeters who mingle with politicians and attend fundraisers on someone else’s dime, delivering a check from a PAC.
“The public thinks lobbyists are scum and skew the system by giving a ton of money,” Krumholz said. “The truth, of course, is that most lobbyists don’t give huge sums of their own money. For those who do, it goes beyond a specific client or strategy. They are movers and shakers.”
Nearly all of the top-giving lobbyists are consultants with multiple clients, according to federal records. The exceptions are Nicholas Calio, who heads the trade association Airlines for America, and Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Calio said that when he joined the airline lobby, it “did not have a PAC to speak of” and has only a small one now.
Zirkin said she supports lawmakers who defend civil and human rights. “I’m in a very fortunate position that I can do this,” added Zirkin, whose husband was a financier.
Most top donors give to traditional campaign and party committees and say they avoid super PACs that aren’t subject to fundraising limits and spend independently of campaigns.
“I’m a party guy. I contribute to campaigns,” said Republican Wayne Berman of Ogilvy Government Relations. “I’m glad super PACs are there, so it’s not a moral judgment.”
David Franasiak, a GOP lobbyist with Williams & Jensen, added: “That’s for people who are multi, multi-millionaires. I’m just not in that league.”
But longtime top Democratic donor Larry O’Brien, who runs the OB-C Group, said super PACs are becoming a bigger part of the mix.
“They’re outside the legal boundaries of McCain-Feingold, so it’s literally unlimited, which is kind of frightening,” he said.
Instead of being given a pass by professional fundraisers, O’Brien said giving the maximum allowed year after year only makes him a bigger target, especially now with the super PACs’ unlimited appetite.
“I admit to feeling put upon,” he said. “I work for a living. I’m not George Soros or the Koch brothers. ... This is just endless.”