Katrina Leads a Lobbyist to Reevaluate His Priorities

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"No sooner is someone elected or reelected than they start their fundraising right out of the box," Webber complained.

"Members of Congress are trapped. They have to continue to raise money if they're going to survive, and I sympathize with them," Webber added. "But I've seen a lot of people -- very good people -- leave Congress because they're tired of fundraising. This thing has gotten away from us."

Many lobbyists and trade association leaders receive dozens of fundraising requests each week. One reason for the heavy flow is that the three-year-old McCain-Feingold law that was supposed to rein in campaign giving also doubled to more than $100,000 the amount that individuals (like lobbyists) can donate to certain political entities each election cycle. At the same time, the cost of elections continues to escalate.

Webber is particularly hard-pressed by this dynamic because his association doesn't have a political action committee, which is a pool of funds collected from what in his case would be corporate executives. The money lawmakers seek from Webber would come out of his own wallet.

But his distress is about more than his personal finances. He said he believes the system itself is "diseased."

"For those of us who have been in Washington a long time, it's almost overwhelming," Webber said. "A lot of my colleagues -- trade association executives -- want to help our friends, but this whole process is wearing us down."

This month's death and destruction brought those concerns into sharp relief. Lobbyists like Webber often grouse about being dunned for cash by the legislators that they're paid to influence. But ultimately, they rarely support the setting of limits on their gifts because much of their entree is greased by the size and frequency of their contributions.

A spot check last week found that few lobbyists were as livid about the situation as Webber. Understandably, one of those who was upset was former senator John Breaux (D-La.), who now works for the lobbying law firm Patton Boggs LLP. "You need to put out the yellow caution flag on political fundraising and direct all those dollars to hurricane relief victims," Breaux urged.

But not many people were following his advice. Most fundraisers went off without a hitch. One exception was a canceled lunch for Sen. James M. Talent (R-Mo.) set for Sept. 19 in St. Louis that Vice President Cheney was scheduled to attend.

Even Webber found himself attending a small political breakfast by week's end because, he said, "it was a reasonable request."

In the future, he said, "I'll continue to do those but, due to Katrina, I'll do them more selectively."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company