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When House Changed Rules for Travel, He Lobbied for the Lobbyists

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Loopholes in laws and regulations sometimes seem to appear by magic, and often no one wants to claim to be the magician. But one man actually wants credit for a couple of big loopholes in the new ethics rules the House passed last month: John H. Graham IV.

Graham is the president of an organization that could exist only in Washington -- the American Society of Association Executives. In other words, he is the chief lobbyist for lobbyists.

His organization represents 22,000 association executives, from large groups such as the American Medical Association and small ones such as the Barbershop Harmony Society. When any of them are in danger of losing access to lawmakers, Graham, 57, is supposed to intervene.

Which is what he did -- proudly -- as soon as he learned that Democratic leaders wanted to ban travel provided by lobbyists and the entities that employ them. Graham dispatched his own lobbyists and several of his most sympathetic allies to meet with House staffers. Eventually they poked two gigantic holes in the proposed prohibition.

The first opened the way for lobbyists to pay for short trips -- one day as far as the Midwest and two days to the West Coast. The second permits colleges to provide travel to lawmakers without restriction, even though they lobby in Washington a lot. (See the next item.)

Ethics advocates were disappointed. "The better policy is no privately financed travel," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

But Graham was unabashed. Golf trips to Scotland should be nixed, he said, but not visits to taxpayer-funded programs or to industry-backed seminars. "We didn't want a total ban on travel," Graham said. "We were on top of it from the very beginning."

In fact, he and his lobbyists started their campaign a year ago after then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) first suggested a travel ban. That effort failed partly because of Graham's enterprise.

After the Democratic victory in last year's midterm elections, Graham's lobbyists -- Senior Vice President Jim Clarke and contract lobbyist James W. Rock -- targeted the staff of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and then met with aides to Democratic House leaders Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.).

After one such meeting, Graham learned that the ban would prevent lawmakers from taking trips to colleges to give commencement addresses. He quickly asked the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to join the crusade.

Graham also recruited other groups with sterling reputations, including the American Heart Association, the YMCA of the USA and the American Cancer Society. They went as a group from office to office on Capitol Hill and made the case that brief trips could not be mistaken for boondoggles, especially when white-hat interests like themselves were footing the bill.

The result: Graham has become Mr. Loophole, winning the exemptions and on track to getting them in the Senate as well.

Taken to School

Colleges are filled with smart people, but nobody gets rewarded just for their brains. Many of those brainy people know they've got to go asking for money when they want it. So it's no surprise that colleges are among the most prodigious users of lobbyists. Universities and other groups with direct interests in higher education spent $94.6 million on lobbying in 2005, an 18 percent increase from 2004, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Johns Hopkins University led the way with $1,020,000. Boston University, Case Western Reserve University and the University of Miami followed, with $920,000, $820,000 and $730,000, respectively.

Those numbers will probably decline now that pet projects, or earmarks, are harder to get. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) told colleagues last week that they have until March 16 to request them and that their dollar amount will be cut in half compared with most earmarks in fiscal 2006.

Conspicuous-Consumption Alert

Virginia Congressmen James P. Moran Jr. (D) and Thomas M. Davis III (R) sat next to each other in center-court floor seats at the Verizon Center last Wednesday to watch the San Antonio Spurs rout the Washington Wizards, 110-83. Turns out they both bought their tickets from real estate investor Joe Robert, their spokesmen said.

Davis paid a whopping $850 for his ticket out of his own pocket. But Moran used campaign funds to cover the $780 he shelled out for his seat, which raises the question: Why should donors finance his fun?

Moran's eventual answer (after further inquiry): They shouldn't. Spokesman Austin Durrer said Moran has canceled the campaign check and is personally paying Robert $850 "to avoid any perception of impropriety." Moran also regretted arriving late to the game. "At 70 bucks a minute," Durrer said, "it was an expensive seat to watch the Wizards get blown out."

Winners and Losers of the Week

Bush's budget proposal last week provided plenty of surprises for K Street, both good and bad.

Telephone lobbyists are thrilled that Bush wants to repeal the federal excise tax on local telephone service. Alternative-fuels advocates also have lots to crow about in the president's plan to expand research on "green" energy. And airlines are happy that more of the fees used to fund the Federal Aviation Administration would be paid by owners of private planes.

Losers include hospitals, which would get less in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements; life insurers, which see Bush's proposed lifetime savings accounts as unwelcome competition; and natural gas suppliers, which are disappointed that the president wants to reduce write-offs for their distribution lines.

Hires of the Week

After 16 years as chief of staff to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Ed Greelegs has joined Kenneth Levine, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, to form Levine & Greelegs, a lobbying firm affiliated with Downey McGrath Group. Durbin is the Senate's second-ranking Democrat.

Dan Shapiro, former deputy chief of staff to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), was hired by Timmons and Company. Shapiro replaces Joab M. "Joey" Lesesne III, who was hired by the media company Cox Enterprises, a Timmons client, as a vice president in Washington.

Chellie Pingree is stepping down as president of Common Cause after four years to return to her home state of Maine to pursue a possible run for Congress. Executive Vice President Jon Goldin-Dubois will assume Pingree's duties until a permanent successor can be named.

After the Democratic victories in November -- and facing major railway legislation this year -- Union Pacific, America's largest railroad, has named Thomas "Mack" McLarty, who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, to its board of directors. He joins another former White House chief, Andrew H. Card Jr., who served President Bush, and who became a director last summer.

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