Former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert delivered a blunt reminder to farm-state lawmakers about the clout of the ethanol industry with a visit for nearly an hour to the main lobby off the Senate floor during votes on Tuesday, while he worked to stave off a call by conservatives to eliminate the renewable fuels standard.
Taking advantage of his privileges as a former lawmaker, the Illinois Republican lingered in the Senate Reception Room with a team of several associates, including former Rep. William D. Delahunt, D-Mass., next to the passage leading to the Senate floor, bantering with senators and other passersby.
One GOP senator said he was visited in private by Hastert and Delahunt and that they and other members of their group made the case for preserving the renewable fuels standard that mandates the production of ethanol and other alternative fuels, at levels set by the EPA, for blending with gasoline.
The advocacy blitz came just the day after the announcement of the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and six days after he introduced a bill (S 791) to eliminate the RFS over five years, well before its scheduled expiration in 2022.
Allies of Hastert and Delahunt said they made a point of not lobbying lawmakers in the Senate Reception Room, but that they and members of their team used the lobby area as a temporary base, where they could greet lawmakers while they were holding meetings in private rooms.
Even so, representatives of several watchdog groups expressed concern that Hastert was bumping up against restrictions aimed at preventing former lawmakers with ties to law firms and lobbyist from button-holing members near the House and Senate floor.
"This raises a lot of eyebrows. For a lot of lobbyists, unless you are a former member, you don't get to hang out in the Capitol. You can't get in without an appointment or an escort. The question is whether he is using his office as a former member and a former speaker to literally corner the market. There are a lot of ways that we could strengthen the lobbying laws," said Stephen Spaulding, policy council for Common Cause, an ethics watchdog group.
While the Senate Reception Room is occasionally visited by lobbyists and other visitors with day passes, they typically don't use it as a base for operations for a lobbying blitz in private rooms by a team of associates.
In the Senate, former House members are not granted access to the Senate floor, and former senators are allowed only if they are not registered lobbyists. There are no such restrictions on the Senate Reception Room.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a non-profit government watchdog group, said the lengthy visit by Hastert and Delahunt to the Senate lobby appeared to follow Senate rules, but raised questions about whether further restrictions were needed.
"This creates an appearance problem. It shows why former members have an unfair advantage. If they can promote that type of access, it makes their business services So expensive and valuable," Holman said.
Hastert and Delahunt both declined to discuss he purpose of their visit to the Senate Reception Room when asked by reporters on Tuesday. They did not respond to emails Wednesday seeking comment on questions raised by watchdog groups about their use of the Senate Reception Room as a temporary base for an RFS campaign.
But several advocates for the ethanol industry spoke in their defense, saying the two lobbyists made a point of not discussing or lobbying members in the reception area.
Brooke Coleman, executive director of the Advance Ethanol Council, a cellulosic ethanol trade group, stood near Hastert during his visit on Tuesday, and said members of the team met with "multiple members" in private rooms.
"No lobbying of any kind was going on in the lobby," Coleman said in an interview.
"We were asked to wait for staff there, for meetings that occurred in private rooms," Coleman added in an email.
Tom Buis, chief executive officer of the Growth Energy, a 70-member ethanol trade group and a member of the Fuels America coalition, said Hastert and Delahunt made a point of trying to abide by lobbying restrictions. "Everyone we have working on this issue is not trying to pull any games or bend the rules," Buis said.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who has offered rival bipartisan proposal (S 577) to remove from the RFS the mandate for the production of corn-based ethanol for blending with gasoline, said he had no problem with his old House colleague, Hastert, exchanging greetings in the Senate Reception Room and making the case against Toomey and Cruz bills in private meetings.
"It's a free country," Toomey said.
Hastert was listed as a registered lobbyist for the Dickstein Shapiro law firm, when it registered in January to lobby on behalf of Fuels America. Delahunt is a registered lobbyist for his own firm, Delahunt Group, which has received $210,000 from Fuels America in the last year.