- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008

The presidential debates, one of the most potentially significant events of the 2008 campaign, are being brought to you, in part, by the very companies that the participants say they want to keep out of politics.

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama have spent much of their time railing against the control of Washington by special interest groups and lobbyists, but some of those same groups are now spending millions of dollars to bring the presidential face-off to the public.

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., the International Bottled Water Association and Hewlett-Packard-owned Electronic Data Systems are among the private firms and organizations sponsoring the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which hosts the forums every four years.

The CPD, which the candidates say they have no control over, declined to disclose how much its sponsors have contributed.

This year, the CPD planned to host three debates between the presidential candidates and one with the vice-presidential candidates. But the first presidential debate, scheduled for Friday night, is in serious doubt because of the flurry of congressional activity on the economic crisis. The debates are to be held in Oxford, Miss.; St. Louis; Nashville, Tenn.; and Hempstead, N.Y.

Critics say the presidential and vice-presidential debates are yet another way that corporate and special-interest money flows directly into politics, despite laws that try to restrict corporate donations to campaign coffers and other venues.

“When you make a contribution, you’re making a contribution to an organization created by and controlled by the [Republican National Committee] and the [Democratic National Committee]. You’re essentially hitting two birds with one stone,” said George Farah, executive director of Open Debates, a Washington group that wants to reform the debate process.

The CPD has been running the debates since 1987. The group has charity status and says it is nonpartisan, while critics say it’s bipartisan because it was set up by the Republican and Democratic national committees and is run by former heads of those groups.

Open Debates argues that a contribution to the CPD is just a masked donation to the parties and that some of the CPD donors are also frequent lobbyists, proving that they are interested in political influence. The sponsors have already spent $3.6 million on federal lobbying over the first six months of the year, according to a search of congressional lobbying reports.

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. is among CPD’s longest financial sponsors.

The St. Louis beer company also is a significant political campaign contributor and lobbyist. The company’s political action committee has spent $1.1 million on federal candidates this election cycle and its lobbying shop has spent $1.7 million so far this year.

Critics say Anheuser’s CPD donations have bought it some influence.

Anheuser’s hometown has been asked to host a debate each presidential year since 1992, although a planned 1996 debate was ultimately canceled. No other city - and no other state, besides Florida - has hosted more than one debate since 1992.

“It’s inconsiderate to the public interest to choose a site that they’ve chosen for the past 16 years in large part because Anheuser-Busch, a beer company, is paying for it,” Mr. Farah said, citing some urging to hold a debate in post-Katrina New Orleans.

The CPD says the city has hosted often because it is well qualified to host and that sponsors are not promised a role in decisions or policy in exchange for a contribution.

“St. Louis and [local host] Washington University have met the guidelines for years. They are a wonderful host city,” said Scott Warner, a spokesman for the CPD.

Anheuser said it plays “no role in determining or influencing any aspect of the debate site selection process.”

“Anheuser-Busch is proud to be a national sponsor of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), as we have been for the past four elections,” Michael Roche, national affairs vice president, said in e-mail, adding that the debates are an important part of the political process.

Washington University in St. Louis, which has hosted the debate each time it has been in town and has three halls on campus with the Busch name, said it has been selected because it’s a good host.

“We believe we’ve been selected every time … because we provide a great environment,” said Rob Wild, chairman of the vice-presidential debate steering committee at Washington University.

The CPD declined to outline what sponsors receive in return for their financial commitment.

In previous years, sponsor companies have been able to hang banners in “spin” areas and pass out pamphlets to debate attendees, Mr. Farah said.

This year, Anheuser-Busch also is hosting a “hospitality area” at the four debate sites.

“We hope our hospitality area will provide a welcome opportunity to relax with some great food and ice-cold beverages and connect with colleagues and friends,” the invitation said. “If you’re looking for a little entertainment, you’ll be able to watch some of our latest television spots and enter a drawing for a chance to win a Budweiser fire pit, perfect for outdoor gatherings this fall.”

Both Anheuser and Electronic Data Systems have ties to Mr. McCain.

Carly Fiorina, former chief executive officer at Hewlett-Packard, is an economic adviser to the Arizona senator. Mr. McCain’s father-in-law, James Hensley, established Hensley & Co., an Anheuser beer distributorship in Phoenix whose value has been put by industry experts at more than $250 million.

Electronic Data Systems has spent $1.8 million on federal lobbying in the first six months of the year.

Watchdog group Common Cause said Anheuser and Electronic Data Systems’ role in sponsoring the CPD is problematic.

“We certainly think it doesn’t look good,” said spokeswoman Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, contending that the two companies’ role is “particularly troublesome given Cindy McCain’s relationship with Anheuser and John McCain’s relationship with Carly Fiorina.”

The International Bottled Water Association has spent $50,000 on federal lobbying this year.

Other sponsors include: advertising company BBH New York, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, tax attorney Sheldon S. Cohen , the philanthropic group Kovler Fund, health care group the Kaiser Family Foundation and the YWCA.

The presidential campaigns said they have no influence over the CPD.

“Our campaign hasn’t accepted a dime from Washington lobbyists during this campaign and Senator Obama made clear again [Monday] that an Obama presidency would limit the influence of money and special interests over the political process,” said spokesman Ben LaBolt.

“Nobody’s done more to take on the influence of special interests in Washington than John McCain,” said spokesman Brian Rogers.

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