Wal-Mart, the Democrats' New Friend

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Wal-Mart has taken its lumps lately, especially from the Democratic Party over its treatment of employees. So the company has been courting the new majority on Capitol Hill by doing a lot of the standard stuff: hiring Democratic executives and donating more to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. Its political action committee has given 49 percent of its funds to Democrats this year, up from 32 percent in last year's election.

But last week Wal-Mart's outreach got personal as well -- it's now doing favors for the families of powerful Democratic senators.

Last Tuesday evening, the world's largest retailer sponsored a fancy reception in the Capitol's LBJ Room off the Senate floor to celebrate a yet-to-be-completed documentary about female members of the chamber called "14 Women." The film's three producers include Mary Lambert, the older sister of Sen. Blanche Lincol n (D-Ark.), and Nicole Boxer, the daughter of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Paul Kane of washingtonpost.com reports that the "Wal-Mart" on the name tags was larger than the names of the guests.

The event was a big hit. Wal-Mart said that 12 of the now-16 women in the Senate (11 D's and five R's) showed up -- including Sens. Lincoln and Boxer, of course. One of the senators who did not attend was Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Clinton is a former Wal-Mart director (something some of her campaign aides would like the public to forget) whose younger brother, Tony Rodham, was once married to Nicole Boxer (something Clinton probably would like to forget).

But Wal-Mart did more to assist the project than pass out canapes and drinks. Last year the company became the movie's corporate sponsor when it handed the producers $150,000 to help complete the film. "Mary Lambert contacted Wal-Mart and wanted to know if we might be interested in helping to underwrite the documentary," said company spokesman Robert Traynham. "We thought it would be a great opportunity to help highlight the contributions that women have made in U.S. history and particularly in the U.S. Senate."

Traynham added that the reception and grant were not forms of backdoor lobbying and had nothing to do with trying to improve Wal-Mart's standing with senators, especially Democratic senators.


Soliciting for Good Citizens

Another backdoor lobbying technique (oops, I mean opportunity to celebrate and assist members of Congress) is to conspicuously contribute to a foundation that supports a congressional caucus.

Congress is filled with caucuses -- the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus and the Congressional Internet Caucus, to name just a few. These are groups of like-minded lawmakers who meet regularly to discuss the subjects in which they have a common interest.

But, Washington being Washington, money quickly enters the equation. Some caucuses have foundations that help bankroll events.

The Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, for instance, sponsors gatherings in conjunction with the House co-chairmen of the Congressional Internet Caucus. Its "supporters group" includes dozens of tech firms that lobby Congress intensely, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.

The advisory committee's next large event is an April 25 "Wireless Policy and Practices Dialogue." To pay the tab, its Web site lists "sponsorship opportunities," available for $500 to $5,000. A sampling (before it was apparently altered yesterday):

"Pens and other promotional items: Distribute pens with your logo to event attendees."

"Coffee breaks: We'll announce your sponsorship of the morning continental breakfast or mid-morning coffee break and feature your logo or brand in the break area."

"Wi-Fi Hotspot: We will blanket the meeting area with wireless Internet access and include you as a promotional sponsor."

"Post-Dialogue VIP Dinner: End the conference on a high note and host a VIP event; choose from some of D.C.'s finest restaurants."

None of these constitute lobbying. Companies become sponsors "to prove that they are not only a thought leader in the space but also that they are a good corporate citizen," said Danielle Yates, the advisory committee's spokeswoman.


Strange Pairings of the Week

You rarely see the Business Roundtable, an organization of big-company chief executives, and the Education Trust, an advocate for poor and minority children, in the same room let alone on the same page on a controversial issue.

But last week -- and in fact every week for months -- lobbyists for the two and for several other odd-bedfellow groups have convened in a conference room at the Roundtable's sleek new offices to plot how to extend and strengthen the No Child Left Behind law.

On April 26, representatives of the Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- two meat-eating lobbies if ever there were some -- conducted a skull session with people from the trust, the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights and the National Council of La Raza. They all back common goals for the law, including placing more emphasis on math and science, and they lobby both Democratic and Republican lawmakers to make those goals happen.

The lefty groups want more federal assistance for education, because they favor more government help in general. The corporate folks want the law beefed up, because they think it will improve the quality of their workforce. Both sides also benefit politically by putting their muscle behind a priority of President Bush and key Democratic chairmen such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). "It's not a coalition I ever dreamt I'd be part of," said Amy Wilkins of Education Trust. "But it seems to be effective."

Lobbying Expands in a Lean Year

Election years are often fallow for lobbyists, because the interests that employ them tend to take a wait-and-see approach. Yet total spending on federal lobbying last year managed to zoom up to $2.6 billion, a nearly 11 percent increase from $2.4 billion in 2005, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

The biggest-spending sector was finance, insurance and real estate, with $353.9 million, followed by health, with $337.7 million, new data from the Center for Responsive Politics show. Organized-labor lobbying was near the bottom, with $29 million in federal expenditures last year.

Spending by registered lobbyists has risen steadily year over year. And lobbyists expect another bumper season this year in the wake of the Democratic takeover of Congress. Change breeds uncertainty, they say, and uncertainty inevitably brings extra lobbying fees.

Please send e-mail tokstreet@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company