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.).
The most important framework for lobbying clout -- campaign finance laws -- would not be altered in the Senate approach, while House GOP leaders have proposed putting limits on the contributions made to big-money independent groups known as 527s. But without Senate support, the effort to clamp down on the independent groups will fail.
As a result, lobbyists would still be able to contribute to lawmakers' coffers, host and organize major fundraising events, and arrange trips subsidized by their clients to encourage electoral giving -- just as they do now. Total federal giving in this election cycle is expected to rise by at least 20 percent, to more than $3 billion, compared with the 2002 midterm-election cycle, according to Michael J. Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
Such campaign-related activities are "the most significant benefits lobbyists use to influence members of Congress," said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The proposed ethics changes would not restrain the fastest growing part of lobbying: grass-roots activities. This ginning up of letters, telephone calls and, increasingly, e-mails from back home has become a $1 billion-a-year business, said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), an activist for lobbying law changes.
Congress might require that such lobbying costs be disclosed but is not likely to limit them. In fact, lobbying in its many forms would continue unabated under the coming legislation.
In 2004, the most recent full year about which data are available, lobbying was a $10 billion industry, according to estimates by James A. Thurber, a political science scholar at American University. Of the total, $2.1 billion was used to pay the salaries of registered lobbyists, while the rest was spent on more subtle forms of persuasion.
Lobbying is done even at charity events. Lobbyists say privately that they are all but required to contribute to an annual dinner that helps low-income Roman Catholic schools in the District. The dinner is co-hosted each September by Boehner and Kennedy. Boehner has solicited contributions for the $10,000 tables, a request that lobbyists say they are loath to ignore.
"Some lobbyists might consider this a lobbying opportunity," said Michael L. Smith, the dinner's director. "But we see it as a very worthy charitable event."
The communications industry has its own lobbying-and-charity gala. Every December, the Federal Communications Bar Association fills the Washington Hilton's grand ballroom for a fancy dinner that raises money for D.C. schoolchildren and honors the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the interests of the dinner's patrons.
At the 2004 Chairman's Dinner, FCC commissioners dined at an elaborately set table while then-Chairman Michael K. Powell gave a lengthy speech and showed a video about himself.
Interest groups also pay to participate in social activities, which double as lobbying venues. State societies, for example, offer lawmakers, congressional aides and lobbyists numerous opportunities for informal encounters.
The California State Society's fall 2005 newsletter featured a photograph of Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and former congressman Bill Lowery (R-Calif.), who is a lobbyist for an electric utility and a defense contractor. Both are active members.
According to its Web site, the society's Platinum ($10,000) corporate sponsors in 2005 included Fleishman-Hillard, a lobbying and public relations company, and Sallie Mae, a Virginia-based provider of student loans that lobbies in Washington.
Lawmakers and their staffers have lately reduced their social interactions, especially meals, with lobbyists in anticipation of a possible crackdown under a new law.
But interests will always find a way to be heard, lobbyists say. One is through think tanks. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which widely publicizes its belief that the earth is not warming cataclysmically because of the burning of coal and oil, says Exxon Mobil Corp. is a "major donor" largely as a result of its effort to push that position.
"I think what attracted them to us was our position on global warming," said Sam Kazman, CEI's general counsel. "And we hope to get support from other industries that agree with us."