Katrina Leads a Lobbyist to Reevaluate His Priorities
Monday, September 12, 2005
Frederick L. Webber, a longtime denizen of Washington's lobbying corridor, showed up at work one day last week and found on his desk a dozen fundraising requests from members of Congress.
He threw them all in the trash.
In a self-described epiphany, Webber, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, drafted a large check to help families displaced by Hurricane Katrina and decided that an imperative of his vocation -- political giving -- had finally gone too far.
How could lawmakers be asking for money for their reelections, he asked himself, when thousands of Americans were desperate for aid along the Gulf Coast?
"It really hit home when I was writing out that check," Webber said. "Political fundraising in this town has gotten out of control."
It's a message he was repeating passionately at lunches and in private conversations with other lobbyists all over town last week.
Webber's opinion is worth noting; he isn't just any lobbyist. At age 67, Webber has been a major player in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked both in the Nixon White House and on Capitol Hill and has headed up or helped direct lobbying groups representing car companies, chemical manufacturers, electric utilities, savings institutions and soft drink makers.
"In the Washington business community, Fred is close to the top of the list," said Michael E. Baroody, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
"He's a pillar of the association community," agreed Donald A. Danner, executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business. "He's one of the guys you look up to and respect."
Webber told K Street colleagues that radical change is needed in election laws: Donations should be further limited, campaign seasons should be shortened and lawmakers, somehow, should be freed up to do more legislating and less soliciting.
He also made clear that the hurricane's devastation was what prompted his proselytizing. "All of a sudden I asked, 'What are the priorities here?' " Webber said in an interview. "It was an easy decision to make. I couldn't justify making those $500 to $2,500 [campaign] contributions. It just didn't fit."
Lawmakers' constant bombarding of lobbyists with fundraising invitations, he said, "is crazy." Yet the daily rush of fundraisers hardly slowed last week, even with the tragedy of New Orleans.