Derail These Fundraisers

By Ruth Marcus
Monday, January 9, 2006

"All Aboard for Joe Barton's 2006 Texas Train Ride," the invitation reads. It is oversized and glossy, printed on the kind of heavy stock that sends the message: This is a Major Event.

If you don't know who Joe Barton is, if you can't imagine why you'd want to pay several thousand dollars for the privilege of playing Texas Hold 'Em with him en route from Fort Worth to San Antonio, as the invitation promises, then -- it's safe to deduce -- you don't make your living as a Washington lobbyist. For Barton is not only the Republican congressman from the Sixth District of Texas. He is -- more to the point for those who are anteing up for his weekend-long fundraiser this month, and as the invitation helpfully points out on its cover page -- "Chairman Joe Barton."

Chairman, that is, of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has dominion over everything from health care and pharmaceuticals to broadcasters, from cable and telephone companies to energy policy and environmental protection. If you are a lobbyist offered the chance to spend some quality time with Joe Barton ("During the ride, we'll have lots of time to talk," the invitation notes with the subtlety characteristic of these missives), chances are you'll think about getting on board.

Or, as Barton put it in the invitation, "This is going to be a hot ticket!" Indeed, it is, even at the sticker-shock price of $2,000 per individual, $5,000 per political action committee -- hotel rooms not included. As of Friday afternoon, 132 attendees had signed up -- mostly from what's commonly referred to as the PAC community, as if they had a unifying belief in something beyond the efficacy of campaign checks.

I write about the Barton fundraiser not to single out the chairman -- though you could question the tastefulness of an event that features an after-hours tour of the Alamo, "shrine of Texas liberty," to help harvest campaign checks. Indeed, what's noteworthy about the event is, in part, its disturbing ordinariness. Lawmakers with enough clout and party committees have these sorts of getaways all the time: ski weekends in Vail, summer jaunts to Nantucket, Super Bowl outings, golf tournaments with this or that committee chair.

"It's a high-dollar fundraiser like any other," says Barton consultant Craig Murphy, noting that the congressman had not previously hosted such an event. "Guess he's the last one on the train to do it." (Well, at least his train is a string of private rail cars.) The Barton fundraiser, first reported by Roll Call, is perfectly legal. The money he collects will eventually be disclosed in his campaign finance reports.

But no one -- no one who isn't on the train, anyway -- would be able to discern from the official paper trail that the $5,000 PAC check purchased a weekend with the chairman. Indeed, when I asked for the names of those attending, or even the identity of the PACs they represented, the Barton campaign demurred. That's its prerogative, but if there's nothing embarrassing about these private parties, why the squeamishness about making the guest list public?

In these heady days after the Jack Abramoff plea and Tom DeLay's departure from the GOP leadership, Democrats like to decry the (as they see it) Republican-only "culture of corruption." At least as troubling is the capital's more pervasive, and certainly more bipartisan, culture of coziness, epitomized by fundraisers such as Barton's. It's this latter problem that ought to be foremost in lawmakers' minds as they scramble to write new rules to govern their dealings with lobbyists.

Even the strongest rules can't stop a lobbyist or lawmaker bent on corruption; see, e.g., not only Abramoff but also former California congressman Randy Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to taking $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors. Certainly, the more disclosure that is required, the fewer temptations that a lobbyist can legally dangle in front of a lawmaker and the less the opportunity for criminal mischief. But where lobbying reform could have its most cleansing effect is not with the crooks in Congress or the private sector but with those who play, more or less, by the rules of a fundamentally flawed system.

The world-weary Washington-insider take on lobbying reform is that it will be adopted and change nothing. That's wrong. True, the capital won't magically be transformed from Mr. Abramoff's Neighborhood to Mr. Rogers'. Reform also needs to be wholesale, addressing the array of systemic abuses, to be effective: Like fixing a leaky basement, patching just one or two damp spots won't keep undue influence from seeping in. And even the most effective rules, like the most careful repairs, tend to be eroded over time.

But that doesn't mean reform isn't worth doing. Stricter rules, more illuminating disclosure and better enforcement could ameliorate some of the seamier aspects of the mutually beneficial, mutually degrading symbiosis that characterizes the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship.

They might even spare Joe Barton and his lobbyist friends from having to pretend that their notion of fun is being trapped together on a train playing Texas Hold 'Em.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company