Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Want to dine with five U.S. senators? Then just drop by Wednesday night and, oh, by the way, bring $30,400.

That’s what it costs to be a “co-chair” of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s Women’s Senate Network party, thrown by power lobbyist Heather Podesta.

“What do you get when you put the minds of key Democratic Women Senators, the brush strokes of Women Artists, the recipes of Women Chefs, and the design of a Woman Architect together in the same house?” Mrs. Podesta said in an e-mail addressed “Dear friends.”

Who knows? But it will cost you to find out, according to the e-mail, which lays out contributions required for access to the event.

“This is kind of awkward, but we actually don’t talk about our fundraisers,” said DSCC communications director Eric Schultz. “We keep our private events private.”

For the DSCC dinner, to be held at the $2 million Woodley Park home of Mrs. Podesta and lobbyist husband Tony, five senators will be in the house: Amy Klobuchar, Mary L. Landrieu, Jeanne Shaheen, Maria Cantwell and Kay Hagan. “Our meal will be prepared by some of the nation’s best women chefs,” the hostess’ e-mail said.

“The woman senators try to get together on a regular basis,” said Erikka Knuti, communications director for Mrs. Klobuchar. “They’re pretty private. I don’t know what they talk about. The senator doesn’t tell me.”

Well, what do attendees of such parties really get for their money?

“Those people who gave $30,000 have a seat at the table, the dining table with you, and they sit down and they explain to you what they want, what they’re concerned about and perhaps even specific legislation they care about,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington watchdog group.

“And they don’t have to say to the candidate, ‘I bring in a lot of money for you,’ because the candidate knows that,” he said.

The party and the money it will collect are completely legal. Although an individual can contribute $2,400 to a candidate or incumbent politician, the maximum a person may give to a national party or political action committee in any one year is $30,400.

The Podestas are one of the most prominent socialite couples in Washington, and they wield significant clout. Newly released records show they have been in and out of the Obama White House a combined eight times from Inauguration Day through July.

From January to August, the Podesta Group, managed by Mr. Podesta, was the lobbying firm sponsoring the most fundraisers - 14, according to a study by Public Citizen.

But the Podestas are by no means the only ones throwing lavish parties or hosting expensive outings. Donors have dozens of opportunities each week to plunk down cash to join a member of Congress for intimate face time.

Two days before Halloween, Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, California Democrat, hosted a “Night to Dis-Member ‘Fiend’-Raiser” at the home of lobbyist Tom Trotter.

The invitation suggested that contributions of $250 for “mummies and friends,” $500 for “poltergeists,” $1,000 for “organ donors,” $2,500 for “life supporters” and $5,000 for the special designation of “electric chair” could be made to the “Hon-orrible” congresswoman’s re-election committee.

Although you’ve already missed the pig roast thrown last week for Rep. Phil Gingrey, Georgia Republican, there’s still time to catch the “day of skeet, trap and clays” on Tuesday for Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, California Republican.

Want to see Bruce Springsteen that night? No fewer than four members of Congress are throwing parties at the Verizon Center, with tickets ranging up to $5,000.

Rep. John Carter, Texas Republican, is throwing one such bash, cost: $2,000 per political action committee or $1,000 per person. A couple of dozen donors are coming along.

“We’re trying to have things that appeal to different people,” said John Stone, who works with the campaign. The campaign has had not only deep-sea fishing trips and golf outings, but also plenty of downscale events.

“We’re also having hot dog suppers for 10 bucks,” he said. “It ranges all the way from hot dog suppers after church on Sunday to fish fries and barbecues to golf tournaments … different ideas that will excite people other than just calling them and saying, ‘Hey, I’m running for Congress again and I need your help, will you send me some money?’ ”

Can such events allow donors to have undue influence on a lawmaker? “It depends on the member of Congress,” Mr. Stone said. “I don’t think, with a member like John Carter, that anybody’s going to be able to force him to change his vote on any issue.”

If you skip Springsteen, you have plenty of other options.

“There’s every kind of alcohol tasting you can imagine - bourbon, tequila, martinis, margaritas, you name it,” said Nancy Watzman, who keeps an unofficial tally of political fundraisers for the Sunlight Foundation’s Web site, politicalpartytime.org.

“Golf is one of the most popular. There’s weekends in Vegas, weekends in New York. There’s all kinds of hunting. Baseball’s big, football’s big, and concerts,” she said.

While her organization seeks to shed light on the practice, she acknowledged that “this is just the way the system works.”

But some say the practice is contrary to President Obama’s pledge during the campaign that the days of lobbyists setting the agenda in the nation’s capital are over.

“What’s unseemly and unethical is that everybody who walks in the door, every candidate knows they just gave $30,000 to support their campaign,” Mr. Holman said. “It brings in such a huge chunk of money that no candidate can turn their back on the interests that are being expressed by someone who’s going to hand them a check for $30,000.”

At Wednesday’s dinner event, guests also can become a “vice chair” for $10,000, a “co-host” for $5,000 and an “individual sponsor” for $1,000. Mrs. Podesta added: “Please make checks payable to the ‘DSCC.’ ”

Got friends with deep pockets? “Please feel free to forward this invitation to others that might be interested in attending or contributing,” she wrote in her e-mail, signed simply, “Best, Heather.”

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