Street Talk: In Dramatic Election Year, K Street Is the ATM

Posted June 18, 2010 at 4:38pm

Tax lobbyist Ken Kies receives about 50 e-mails a day on one subject alone: money.

But these communiqués don’t contain questions from clients about how Kies can save them cash by tweaking the tax code. Instead, these are messages from Members of Congress asking Kies to donate to their campaign coffers.

“These guys would be asking Mother Teresa for money if she were still alive,” quipped Kies, a Republican who works at the Federal Policy Group. “On both sides of the aisle, it’s the most intense fundraising effort that I’ve ever seen. The level of activity is the highest, I think, that has ever existed.”

Welcome to the world of a lobbyist.

As control of Congress hangs in the balance of this year’s midterm elections, Members are chasing every dollar, and K Street remains a top target.

“It is crazy. It is busy,” said Michael Fraioli, a Democratic fundraiser who runs Fraioli & Associates. “If you’re a lobbyist, just get a room here in town.” That’s because you won’t have any spare time to drive home between shuttling to and from breakfast, lunch and dinner events.

Lobbyists on both sides of the aisle say that this cycle’s narrative has grown ever more dramatic. Republicans, in particular, say they are energized about their party’s prospects, while Democrats feel the pressure of their majority status on the line.

“Most people are looking at this midterm election as potentially being the most significant midterm election in decades,” Kies said. “And campaigns cost more than ever. So when you have that combination … it just adds to the demand for campaign resources.”

Lobbyist Larry O’Brien — a Democrat who, like Kies, routinely gives the maximum amount of campaign money allowed under the law — said the fundraising shows no signs of letting up.

“The pace remains unrelenting, and I don’t see any reduction,” he said.

While most K Streeters bemoan the constant pleas for their after-tax cash, some lobbyists say it’s all part of the excitement of politics.

Republican Dan Mattoon, who runs his own lobby firm Mattoon & Associates, said he is fired up about his party’s candidates this cycle. “Colleagues on K Street and other Republicans see that there’s an opportunity here to get the majority for the first time since ’04,” said Mattoon, a former deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “We are seeing an opportunity to take over again.”

As a result, Mattoon added, “I’ve noticed an increase in events.”

It may not be everything, but the money is critical.

“If you’re in a competitive situation and a wave hits, money is not going to be the final determinant, but you have to have enough funds to be competitive. I think this year could be that way. The wave may turn into a tsunami.”

Corporate lobbyists aren’t the only ones who have noticed the uptick in fundraising events. Former Rep. Bob Edgar (D-Pa.), president and CEO of Common Cause, said the whole scene has gotten out of control.

“Remember that movie, where the guy yells, ‘Show me the money!’?” Edgar asked, referring, of course, to the 1996 film “Jerry Maguire.” “I think that’s what we’ve come to.”

Edgar said that lawmakers spend 40 percent to 60 percent of their time in D.C. chasing dollars — and not legislating.

This, in Edgar’s view, is a problem.

When Edgar, who served in Congress in the 1970s and ’80s, was on Capitol Hill, lobbyists would meet with him, talking points — not checkbooks — in hand. If he agreed with their position and voted the way they liked, then the lobbyists might bring their contributions to his campaign. But the donations would come after, not before.

“That’s the difference,” he said. “Now they come first with the money, and the talking points are incidental to the conversation.”

Common Cause, which advocates for public financing of campaigns, is trying to shine the spotlight on corporate money by holding protests outside Members’ fundraisers. Its first target was an event for Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) on June 10, but the group is planning many more demonstrations outside swanky restaurants and other places where lobbyists and corporate interests are making donations.

“Common Cause is particularly interested in getting public officials who serve the public interest and not the special interest,” Edgar said. “We’re going to stand out in front of as many of the crazy fundraisers they’re having in Washington.”

It’s nothing personal against the lobbyists, though.

Edgar, himself a lobbyist, says lobbyists always will have a role to play in Congress. In fact, the protests are part of his lobbying effort in support of a bill introduced in the House and Senate called the Fair Elections Now Act. It would not bar contributions from lobbyists, or call for complete public financing, but it would provide incentive to Members to raise money from residents in their home states by giving matching federal money for those donations.

“Even when all the reforms take place, we’re going to need lobbyists who bring their talking points, but there’s a toxic cocktail,” Edgar said. “It is soiling and corroding our system.”