During a two-week period last fall, lobbyists representing a Korean trade association met with Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) or his aides five times, interspersing those meetings with $5,500 in contributions to his campaign.
A similar scenario played out in the office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) this spring when lobbyists representing foreign entities paid a fundraising consultant on behalf of the Senator, contributed $2,000 to his campaign and contacted him about a potential trip to the United Arab Emirates within a four-day span.
The data, culled from a Project on Government Oversight analysis of contacts and contributions made to members of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, show that Clyburn and Baucus are no different than the other lawmakers on the new panel. In the past year — before the super committee was formed — lobbyists representing foreign interests repeatedly contacted each of the 12 Members who now make up the panel and contributed a collective $30,000 to their campaigns.
That figure is chump change in comparison with the millions of dollars those lawmakers bring in every year. But while the POGO analysis shows no signs of wrongdoing, the timing of meetings, contributions and communication provide a glimpse at the techniques lobbyists use to grease Congressional wheels.
These details are publicly available thanks to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists working on behalf of foreign agents to file more extensive accounts of their activities, including the dates and the nature of specific contacts, than those representing domestic clients. These reports are held by the Department of Justice and include records of phone calls and copies of written communications and other supplemental materials that lobbyists give to Congressional offices.
The POGO study found that the primary issue of interest to the lobbyists contacting super committee members was free trade, including the pending trade deal with South Korea that President Barack Obama sent to Congress on Monday.
In February 2010, the Korea International Trade Association hired K Street giant Patton Boggs to push for the South Korea trade agreement, according to Justice Department records.
From Sept. 16 to Sept. 29 of that year, Clyburn aides met with the firm's lobbyists four times to talk about the FTA. On Sept. 22 and Sept. 23, lobbyists representing foreign interests at the firm wrote checks totaling $5,500 to Clyburn's campaign committees. Just a week later, on Sept. 30, Clyburn, whose district includes the Port of Charleston, personally sat down with the lobbyists to discuss the trade agreements.
Patrick Devlin, a spokesman for Clyburn, said the meetings are simply part of the Congressman's duties to his constituents.
"Their hopes and aspirations drive his service in Congress and on the super committee, not the influence of lobbyists or special interests," Devlin said. "He has always complied with all rules and the spirit and the letter of the law with regards to campaign financing disclosures and will continue to do so."
A year later, as the super committee held its first hearings, the firm wrote a letter to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) asking her to meet with its lobbyists and South Korea's ambassador, highlighting her "crucial role" in the "deficit reduction discussions."
"Ambassador Han would like to discuss the status of the pending US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), including in the context of the ongoing deficit reduction discussions in which you play a crucial role," Patton Boggs Chairman Thomas Boggs wrote in the Sept. 13 letter. "The Ambassador is anxious to discuss these matters, as well as to update you on KORUS's benefits for the United States, particularly the State of Washington."
The firm's lobbyists ended up meeting with her office Sept. 29, according to a spokesman. Contribution data for that time period is not yet available.
The panel itself is not expected to address the pending deals in its budget reduction proposal, but Murray, who has supported past free-trade deals, could have access to information about how the timing of the debt deliberations could affect passage of the free-trade agreements.
The Patton Boggs lobbyists involved, Scott Thompson and Frank Samolis, declined to comment for this article.
The POGO data also shows that on Feb. 28 and March 1 of 2011, the political action committee run by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld made two separate $1,000 contributions to Baucus. Two days later, Akin Gump lobbyists representing the UAE emailed Baucus' office about a potential trip to the country. That same day, the firm made a $1,200 payment to LaFave & Associates, a Virginia-based political fundraising firm, in what appears to be an arrangement to host an event benefiting Baucus' campaign committee.
Neither Baucus' office nor lobbyists at the firm responded to Roll Call's request for interviews. A spokesperson for Baucus said the lawmaker did not go to the UAE.
In the past year, Baucus has been contacted by lobbyists representing Brazil, Korea and the UAE at least eight times and has collected just more than $3,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists working for foreign countries. Clyburn was contacted by lobbyists representing the interests of Turkey, Korea and India at least 18 times, collecting $9,000, according to the POGO data.
The analysis also shows that Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) were the only super committee members who did not take money from lobbyists representing foreign interests in the past year.