- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 15, 2006

The emphasis placed on political fundraising by lobbyists such as scandal-plagued Jack Abramoff is a growing problem in Washington, say lobbyists and industry watchdogs.

Robert S. Walker, lobbyist for Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates and a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania, says a growing number of lobbyists see channeling campaign funds as the main entree to the political arena, in which their clients’ interests will be determined.

“Fundraising has become more of a factor,” he said, especially as the cost of running political campaigns has ballooned.

Clyde Wilcox, a government professor at Georgetown University, said the intensity and growth of corporate lobbying, combined with the fixation on campaign funds, dramatically has changed the tenor on Capitol Hill.

“I had a corporate lobbyist tell me recently that his job wasn’t much fun anymore … that he didn’t feel that he needed to muster complicated arguments, just round up contributions for the majority, and that he would go into a session asking for twice as much as he thought his client should really get, and be the low bidder in the room,” Mr. Wilcox said.

“This guy believes in lobbying and in the right of corporations to approach government, but he thinks that the greed level is pretty amazing now.”

Abramoff, who said that he had taken part in the “corruption of public officials” when pleading guilty to conspiracy, tax evasion and mail fraud, was known for deftly generating campaign contributions for lawmakers. His cooperation in an ongoing investigation into influence peddling on Capitol Hill has sent dozens of lawmakers scurrying to return contributions.

‘Era of big government’

Douglas G. Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, a nonprofit that runs lobbying ethics-training programs, said the “increasing complexity and reach of government” has contributed to a lobbying explosion and more opportunity for corruption.

“Campaign contributions, if made legally, are not evil,” Mr. Pinkham said. “Obviously, based on the charges Abramoff [pleaded guilty to], there probably are some members of Congress who are susceptible to bribery and influence peddling.”

Citing a recent University of Washington study that put the estimated cost of running a competitive 2006 Senate campaign at close to $10 million, Mr. Pinkham added that “both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton said the era of big government is over.”

“They were both wrong,” he said.

The Center for Public Integrity estimates that of about 30,000 registered lobbyists, 14,000 are active. It says that nearly 250 are former members of Congress or former agency heads, pursuing interests on behalf of everyone from universities and Indian tribes to companies selling everything from machine guns to candy bars to pharmaceuticals.

Lobbying has a rich history tied to the foundation of the U.S. government, and its practitioners often have been viewed skeptically.

As the story goes, it was in the early 1870s that President Grant coined the term “lobbyist.”

After a long day in the Oval Office, Grant would escape for a cigar and brandy in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. “Many would-be power brokers approached him on individual causes,” according to a blurb posted on the hotel’s Web site. “Grant called these people ‘lobbyists.’”

By other accounts, they’ve been at work since the earliest days of Congress and have long been considered moochers to the powerful. “In 1795, a Philadelphia newspaper described the way lobbyists waited outside Congress Hall to ‘give a hint to a Member, teaze or advise as may best suit,’” according to the U.S. Senate’s Web site.

The site also notes a 1913 press conference in which President Wilson famously quipped: “This town is swarming with lobbyists, so you can’t throw bricks in any direction without hitting one.”

‘Redress of grievances’

Webster’s dictionary defines a lobbyist as “a person, acting for a special-interest group, who tries to influence the introduction of or voting on legislation or the decisions of government administrators.”

Lobbyists say that there’s more to it and that their work is vital to policy-making and protected under the First Amendment right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

“It is a major part of the process that is set out in the First Amendment,” said Gordon M. Thomas, chairman of the Bryce Harlow Foundation, a lobbyist professional group, and a lobbyist for Textron Inc., a multi-industry company. “The major role of the lobbyist is to provide a liaison between Congress and whoever the client or the employer of the lobbyist is.”

There are a few general classes under which lobbyists fall.

Corporate lobbyists, such as Mr. Thomas, represent individual companies that employ them to push company interests on Capitol Hill. Nonprofit and public-interest lobbyists work for grass-roots causes or voluntary organizations. Contract lobbyists work for whoever hires them — private companies, unions or any other group interested in persuading a lawmaker to vote a certain way.

Contract lobbyists, analysts say, are the most likely to get involved in congressional fundraising, some organizing fundraisers for candidates their clients support.

Foreign companies that lobby American politicians are called “foreign agents.” The Center for Public Integrity says nearly 100 countries have spent about $624 million lobbying the U.S. government since 1998.

Mr. Walker said the common thread among lobbyists is a desire to contribute to public-policy formulation.

Bringing expertise to bear

“When I was on the Hill, lobbyists were often a valuable asset because they had a focus on particular subject matters that I couldn’t get anywhere else,” Mr. Walker said.

“I was chairman of the Committee on Science … so having someone from the aerospace community come in and give me highly technical background which I couldn’t get from my staff, from the Library of Congress or any other place was very valuable because they were bringing their expertise.”

There are laws to keep lobbyists in check. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 says anyone employed for services that include more than one lobbying contact — an oral or written communication, including e-mail, with an executive-branch official, member of Congress or congressional staffer — during a six-month period must register with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House.

They must file semiannual disclosure reports, detailing all lobbying expenditures and, in the case of contract lobbyists, income received for lobbying efforts. Finally, federal election laws set specific limits on campaign contributions by individuals or by political action committees run by lobbyists.

Senators outnumbered

Alex Knott, manager of the Center for Public Integrity’s “LobbyWatch” project, said there “are 16 different lobbying firms that have more than 100 lobbyists each.”

“That’s more than the Senate has senators,” he said.

The three biggest spenders between 1998 and 2004 were Interpublic Group of Companies Inc., which spent close to $300 million on lobbying during that time; WPP Group, which spent more than $180 million; and Patton Boggs, which spent about $160 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Abramoff worked as a lobbyist for the firm Greenberg Traurig — No. 8 on center’s list.

A spokesman from Patton Boggs refused to comment for this article, even when asked only for general remarks about how the universe of lobbying works.

Mr. Thomas, meanwhile, said he believes “the vast majority of lobbyists are ethical, honest, have integrity and do their jobs well with honor, and that any suggestion that Abramoff is at all typical or part of the standard way of doing business is completely erroneous.”

Several Capitol Hill lawmakers are proposing new regulations for the lobbying industry, including calls to double the one-year ban on former members of Congress and former senior congressional employees lobbying lawmakers, increased fines for lobbyists who fail to report their lobbying contacts, and more accounting of grass-roots lobbying activities.

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