Lobbyists Often Get More Shakedowns Than They Give

Posted February 24, 2004 at 2:09pm

Perhaps not surprisingly for a longtime denizen of political Washington, I have many lobbyists among my friends and acquaintances — company and trade association representatives, independent lobbyists and public relations people, lawyers and so on. Most, of course, are good and honorable people. But even if the founders enshrined the right to petition government for redress of grievances, the word “lobbyist” is still a dirty word to much of the press corps and the public, and the epithet “special interests” is a favorite for presidential candidates in both parties. [IMGCAP(1)]

There are unscrupulous lobbyists and dishonorable special interests. And special-interest money does pervade the political process. But far too often, the assumption is that the flow of corrupting influence goes in one direction and one direction only — from those venal interests to politicians and policymakers. The reality is very different.

The real corruption is usually the other way around — venal politicians shaking down the special interests and lobbyists. That problem is more acute today than it has been in any time I can remember.

For 20 years at least, I have heard countless tales from my lobbyist friends of their encounters or experiences with lawmakers demanding campaign contributions. The typical story is of a Member (or more often, a staffer) calling the lobbyist to inquire about attendance at the Member’s upcoming $500-a-ticket fundraiser at the Capitol Hill Club or the Democratic Club.

Reference is made to legislation the lobbyist or his/her company is interested in. Sometimes, threats not always subtle or veiled are made about what might happen to that legislation, or to the access of the lobbyist or company to the Member or the subcommittee he/she chairs. They used to be about political action committee contributions (or corporate or labor soft money). Now they are about the lobbyists’ personal funds. Whatever the form, they are shakedowns, plain and simple.

Most Members don’t operate this way as a matter of course, and most Washington fundraisers are done on the up-and-up. But as the competition between the two parties for majority status heated up in the 1990s, the desperation for a financial edge heated up as well, and the fundraising calls of the shakedown variety began to expand.

When Democrats were in the majority, they were the more frequent offenders; of course, threats of legislative payback or loss of access mean more when they come from chairmen or other majority party influentials. But the House Republicans have taken this process to a new high — or low — over the past decade.

Roll Call reporter Brody Mullins this month reported on a new twist in this game — a concerted and open effort by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his cronies to force Republican lobbyists to give the maximum $4,000 to various needy Congressional GOP candidates, even as they give the maximum $25,000 a year to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

In effect, the word is going out to all lobbyists who have any connection to the Republican Party — if you want anything in Congress, you had better ante up to the table. That will mean, in most cases, maxing out personally to the tune of $95,000 per cycle (if they get more aggressive in their shakedowns, it will no doubt go to $190,000 including the lobbyists’ spouses).

This is part of a broader effort to nail down a permanent Republican majority in Congress, masterminded by DeLay and Grover Norquist with plenty of outside and inside assistance. It aims to force trade associations, interest groups, PR firms, law firms and companies to hire Republicans for their top and mid-level lobbying or government relations jobs — in some cases by firing visible Democrats in those jobs, in others by putting on full-court pressure when there are vacancies.

When H&R Block hired Democrat Nicholas Spaeth to be chief legal officer, Washington Republicans and their conservative activist allies screamed foul — even though Spaeth would be in Kansas City, not in Washington, and not doing any lobbying. Why object? The chief legal officer of a big company is a great source for political money.

It becomes clear to the Republican staffers, interns or administration officials who do get these jobs that they are expected to show appropriate gratitude for their good fortune.

DeLay and his allies have occasionally been hammered for their actions. DeLay himself was slapped on the wrist by the House ethics panel when he tried to force the Electronics Industries Association to drop its plan to hire Democrat Dave McCurdy, and The Washington Post wrote stories and editorials about allegations that aides to Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) had threatened the Investment Company Institute with adverse actions if they did not fire lobbyist Julie Domenick, a Democrat, and replace her with a Republican.

I don’t care who is doing it, Democrats or Republicans. This kind of behavior is utterly wrong and unethical, and it is time for Congress to do something about it and for the press to perform its watchdog role in an area other than Michael or Janet Jackson.

Most Americans have a hard time thinking of lobbyists as victims, but they often are at the mercy of lawmakers and staffers who have many ways to keep them from doing their wholly legitimate jobs.

The worst shakedowns have at least been eliminated by the end of unlimited soft-money contributions and the bar on lawmakers and other power players from soliciting these funds, either by selling their access or threatening to deny it. We need to take the next step.

Under the First Amendment, we cannot ban lobbyists from making political contributions. But there is no reason why the ethics panel cannot bar Members and staff from taking or soliciting contributions from lobbyists with business in front of them or their committees.

Unlike many reformers, I do not hate money in politics, believe that we can get rid of it, or think that most of it is tied to bribes or illegitimate quids pro quo.

I supported raising the hard-money contribution limits more than they were ultimately raised, and would do so again. But this money link between lawmakers and lobbyists just plain stinks. Won’t somebody do something about it?

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.