Lobbyists' Emergence Reflects Shift in Capital Culture

Rep. Tom DeLay, shown in October with his wife, Christine, helped articulate a new approach to lobbying when Republicans took over the House in 1994.
Rep. Tom DeLay, shown in October with his wife, Christine, helped articulate a new approach to lobbying when Republicans took over the House in 1994. (By Jay Janner -- Associated Press)
By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Corporate lobbyists Mark Valente III and Troup Coronado don't have to hang out in the hallways of Capitol Hill, waiting to buttonhole Rep. John M. Shimkus (R-Ill.). Both men have more convenient ways of reaching the lawmaker.

Valente is the treasurer of Shimkus's political action committee, the John S Fund. And Coronado, who lobbies for BellSouth, played host at a Dec. 17 fundraiser for Shimkus at MCI Center. Guests made contributions -- $1,000 per person, $1,500 per couple -- to his reelection campaign, and in turn they got to take in a Bon Jovi performance from the BellSouth suite.

There is nothing exceptional about Valente's relationship with Shimkus, or Coronado's fundraising party. But they do illustrate the capital's changing mores.

Although the excesses of Jack Abramoff have captured the news, a wide range of other practices -- rarely publicized and fully legal -- reflect the steady dismantling of the wall between lobbyists and members of the House and Senate.

Fallout from the Abramoff scandal is likely for a time to chill certain aspects of the capital culture, in which access to power on Capitol Hill is lubricated by lobbyist-funded meals, travel and campaign contributions, according to congressional veterans of both parties. But some public interest advocates believe the relationships between lobbyists and politicians have become so institutionalized in recent years that fundamental change is unlikely, absent changes in the law. Among the examples:

· Since 1998, lobbyists have served as treasurers of 79 lawmakers' campaign committees and leadership PACs, according to the Center for Public Integrity. These committees often pay for senators and House members to enjoy such fundraising events as golfing in Palm Springs, Calif., and fishing tournaments off the Florida Keys -- outings at which the lobbyists will also be prominently in attendance.

· Major trade associations have bought Capitol Hill townhouses for fundraisers so that lawmakers can quickly go back to cast votes and then return to the event.

· At election time, many lobbyists put on a new hat and become political consultants, guiding incumbents to reelection. Afterward these lobbyists return to their traditional roles, being able now to ask for votes from those they helped put in office.

"The border has broken down. Not only has it broken down, it's sort of 'barbarians at the gate,' " said Lawrence F. O'Brien III, a Democratic lobbyist. "There is sort of the naked 'Well, we are one, you are us' type of notion between the members of Congress and the lobbying community downtown."

The change in standards of what is objectionable versus what is commonplace is suggested by a nearly forgotten uproar nearly two decades ago. On Feb. 3, 1987, newspapers disclosed that then-Sen. Lloyd M. Bentsen (D-Tex.), chairman of the Finance Committee, had set up a "breakfast club" for lobbyists who donated $10,000 to his campaign committee.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company