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K Street Confidenial Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

To Understand Washington, Follow the Shrimp

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page E01

As late as the 1960s, lawmakers stayed in Washington as briefly as they could and rushed home to their constituents. To pay for their elections, they held fundraisers in their districts and states, never near the Capitol.

Back then they didn't need much money and didn't want to be seen as selling out to bloated interests in a far-off city. Besides, there was also almost no one in town to provide the cash. Only a handful of law firms and trade associations cared enough to contribute and, generally, they didn't.

Susan Lacz Niemann pauses in the kitchen of Ridgewells' Bethesda headquarters. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

_____K Street Archive_____
AT&T's Deal For Dominance Led to Its Demise (The Washington Post, Feb 7, 2005)
Hansan Holds E-Advocacy Advantage (The Washington Post, Jan 24, 2005)
Lawmakers Must Heed More Than Internal Rules (The Washington Post, Jan 10, 2005)
More Past Birnbaum Columns

Not any more. Now lawmakers never seem to leave and barely a night goes by that they don't shake the money tree. Congressmen who aren't collecting checks for themselves are visiting the receptions of colleagues to help spur attendance -- all of which has created a booming cottage industry for those who plan and host fundraising parties.

The reasons for this are many. Government has grown so huge that every industry and interest you can think of has a stake it must protect, thus exploding the number of lobbyists. At the same time, elections, even for the House, are million-dollar affairs. Power among legislators is measured not in laws passed but in dollars collected.

The good news about this maniacal focus on campaign lucre, said Kent Cooper of PoliticalMoneyLine.com, is that the donations "aren't going into envelopes of cash" as they reputedly once did. Checks are politely passed over a glass of cabernet and then dutifully disclosed.

But that's pretty much the end of the good news. Cooper and other experts offer a litany of explanations for the ever-growing number of Washington fundraising events. None of them is heartening for the average citizen.

The first is that lawmakers are no longer content to have just one place to put their donations. All 535 members of Congress have their own election committees, of course. But now 211 of them also have second funds (some even have a third) that in years past were called Leadership PACs. That name doesn't work anymore because a freshman is as likely to have one of them as is a veteran.

So now they're called Politician PACs. In any case, their existence multiplies the amount of money that lawmakers can collect from interest groups and lobbyists. And given the opportunity, that's exactly what lawmakers do.

Why bother? After all, almost all incumbents are shoo-ins for reelection given the careful redistricting that's been going on for years and the huge financial advantage they invariably have over their challengers.

The answer is that there's no end to political greed. Incumbents convince themselves that the more money they have in the bank the less likely a challenger will oppose their reelections. But even when lawmakers pass their don't-even-think-about-challenging-me threshold, they still accept more money because they convince themselves that they might want it to run for higher office.

One of my favorite lobbyists says he receives about 20 faxed invitations to congressional fundraisers every day. More invitations are e-mailed.

No matter how large the volume gets, however, lobbyists will never stop giving. Their clients provide a never-ending stream of funds. To them, the ever-larger and ever-more-activist central government remains an appealing and fruitful investment. With lawmakers' trajectory to positions of power getting shorter in duration every year, donors can't afford to ignore anyone who asks for a contribution.

Thus the ingrained system for in-town fundraising marches on. And up goes the demand for venues to gather in the cash.

The result is a new hierarchy among congressional hangers-on. Interest groups and lobbying firms that have access to big rooms or, better, big rooms with views, are highly sought after. With so many fundraisers on the schedule, whoever can cater is king.

Put another way: The traditional way to understand how things happen in Washington is to follow the money. What I'm suggesting here is to follow the shrimp.

"We're very busy," said Susan Lacz Niemann, an owner of Ridgewells, the big catering company. "Almost every night when Congress is in session we handle events for interest groups on behalf of congressmen and senators."

So many restaurants, lobbying firms and hotels offer themselves for this purpose that professional planners now proliferate to help winnow the field. A smattering of choices can be found under the "events" section of National Republican Congressional Committee's Web site.

Convenience is key. Congressmen have to hop to so many receptions that the nearer the events are to their offices the more likely they are to attend. That's why the fancier restaurants on Capitol Hill -- such as La Colline, Capital Grille, Charlie Palmer and the Monocleare favorite spots. Homes like the Stewart R. Mott House (for Democrats) and private clubs such as the 116 Club (for real insiders) serve the same purpose. The Phoenix Park Hotel is among several Capitol Hill haunts that are regularly booked as well.

Then there are the old standbys such as the Democratic Club and the Capitol Hill Club (for Republicans) on the House side. The Senate side has its own places, too, like the buildings that house the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Since congressional aides often chauffeur their bosses, top-flight restaurants downtown also draw a crowd. Among the frequentlyused spots are Oceanaire, Morton's, the Caucus Room, the City Club of Washington, Ruth's Chris Steak House near the convention center and Sesto Senso on 18th Street NW.

Trade associations also gladly get into the act. On the House side, the townhouses of the American Trucking Associations and the Associated General Contractors of America regularly host quickie fundraisers. On the same street can also be found the very busy party rooms of the National Rifle Association, the National Automobile Dealers Association and Dutko Worldwide, a lobbying firm.

On the Senate side, the American Gas Association is equally popular. At all those facilities, costs are low and the well-practiced service is famously reliable.

The gas folks have the added benefit of a remarkable view. Its fourth floor digs have the same view of the Capitol's dome as MSNBC and Fox News Channel (where I am a contributor). The association holds more than 100 receptions annually and has more requests for the space than it can accommodate.

"During those nights when the Congress is in session, there are very few in which we don't host an event," said Rick Shelby, an executive vice president at the American Gas Association. "We have had days when we've had different people in for breakfast, lunch and dinner."

The association doesn't charge for use of its meeting room because of the exposure it gets in return. "We feel this is one way we can raise the visibility of the organization," Shelby said. "We've been here nearly six years and we've had over 300 members of Congress in our facility for events."

The hottest space for fundraising is the new building at 101 Constitution Avenue NW, also known as the Carpenters Union building. There, firms as diverse as Van Scoyoc Associates, the National Mining Association and the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) use their proximity to Capitol Hill and their spectacular views of the dome and the National Mall to entice lawmakers -- and their benefactors.

"It's an extremely popular spot," said Jack Dolan, a spokesman for ACLI. "When I leave my office at 6 o'clock there are a lot of people going upstairs for PAC events and related political gatherings." In years to come, that traffic will only be getting thicker.

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. E-mail him at kstreetconfidential@washpost.com.

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