Lobbyists Foresee Business As Usual

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Some of Washington's top lobbyists say that they expect to find ways around congressional efforts to impose new restrictions on lobbyists' dealings with lawmakers in the wake of the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal, and that any limits will barely put a dent in the billions of dollars spent to influence legislation.

Though Congress may ultimately vote to eliminate a few of the more visible trappings of special pleading, such as gifts, free meals and luxurious trips, lobbyists say they have already found scores of new ways to buy the attention of lawmakers through fundraising, charitable activities and industry-sponsored seminars. An estimated $10 billion is spent annually to influence legislation and regulations, and that spending is not likely to be diminished by the proposed lobbying changes, these lobbyists contend.

"I wouldn't classify those changes as major," said Dan Danner, executive vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business. "Between charitable events and fundraising events, there will still be lots of ways to get in front of members [of Congress]."

Abramoff's guilty plea in January -- to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials with lavish trips, luxury skybox fundraisers, meals and campaign contributions -- triggered a new push in Congress to rewrite the rules governing lobbying.

An emerging Senate bill, which has yet to be completed, would bar lawmakers from accepting meals and gifts such as sports tickets from registered lobbyists. The leading House measure, which has been proposed by GOP leaders, would rely more heavily on additional disclosures but would also impose a temporary ban on privately paid travel.

But many lobbyists said they consider these bills more of a nuisance than an impediment to their ability to work their will.

"Even if all lunches and sporting tickets are banned, legislation and regulations are so complex that the need for professional lobbyists will not diminish," said Frederick H. Graefe, a Washington lawyer and lobbyist.

"If meals are heavily restricted, we're likely to see executives from the home office picking up checks because they're not lobbyists," added J. Steven Hart of Williams & Jensen, a major lobbying firm. "And there are lots of other ways we can still get our cases before members of Congress."

Besides, experts said, industries and interest groups have turned to more sophisticated tactics in recent years, and such tactics are generally not addressed in the new bills on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists are increasing their campaign contributions, widening their use of the Internet to stir voter activism, and donating large sums to think tanks and charities affiliated with such big names as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The Business Roundtable, which represents big-business chieftains, has embraced a new technique of advertising on Web sites for grass-roots advocates. And organizations from the left and the right are increasingly offering meetings with top government officials in exchange for hefty dues.

Americans for Tax Reform, which is headed by conservative strategist Grover G. Norquist, invites contributors who give more than $15,000 a year to receptions and dinners, often at Norquist's home. Featured speakers have included Republicans such as Sens. George Allen (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Bill Frist (Tenn.), the majority leader.

Third Way, a group that devises policies for moderate Democrats, invites its $25,000-a-year donors (many of whom are lobbyists) to regular discussions around Washington that have spotlighted Democratic Sens. Thomas R. Carper (Del.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.).

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