Why the Nation's Richest Man Is Looking for Government Money

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

With a $33 billion endowment, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the world's largest philanthropy. If you add in donations expected from billionaire Warren Buffett, the charity's assets will grow to twice that size, making them nearly as large as those of oil-rich Kuwait.

But apparently that's not big enough. The foundation also is going after money from American taxpayers. This month it gave a three-year, $3.8 million grant to Families USA, a liberal advocacy group, to coax billions of dollars from the U.S. government to advance the cause of global health.

For 25 years, Families USA has been one of Washington's loudest and most effective cheerleaders for expanding the government's role in health services in the United States. It's currently beating the drum for legislation that would provide health coverage for the uninsured and cut the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare.

But now, thanks to the Gates Foundation grant, Families USA will also shake the capital's money tree for health services around the world. Joe Cerrell, the foundation's director of global health advocacy, said he turned to Families USA to "make the case why government should step up and fund more generously programs that have a direct impact on saving millions of lives."

The idea of leveraging the foundation's largess to scare up more money from elsewhere is relatively new -- four or five years old, Cerrell said. Since 1994, the Gates Foundation and its predecessors have doled out more than $13 billion, much of it to directly purchase vaccines and other medicines to battle diseases that proliferate in impoverished countries. But to meet its goal of eradicating the world's worst scourges, Cerrell said, it needs a multiple of that amount.

So it is looking for assistance from entities with even deeper pockets, including Uncle Sam. "The foundation's resources alone aren't enough to fill that gap," Cerrell said.

Families USA said it will use a variety of tactics familiar to anyone on K Street to get the attention of official Washington. "We'll be putting out research, developing messages, and doing a lot of media and communications outreach in Washington and other parts of the country," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. "Our hope is to convince the public, opinion leaders and policymakers that this is a good thing to do."

Specifically, Pollack said he wants to find ways "to increase and improve funding for research on malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other tropical diseases prevalent in developing countries."

But do not -- I repeat, do not -- call this lobbying. The foundation is barred from doing that. And Families USA said it will not lobby with foundation funds. It will push hard, however, in ways that fall just short of buttonholing lawmakers. It certainly has the resources.

Car Trouble on Capitol Hill

Automakers face plenty of challenges in Congress this year, especially an effort (that could well succeed) to force them to make their cars more fuel-efficient -- an initiative they have managed to resist for more than two decades.

But when it rains it pours, and they now have extra trouble. The Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality (CARE) -- an established alliance of maintenance companies such as Midas, AutoZone and Jiffy Lube -- is pressing for legislation that would compel automakers to offer more information at lower prices to independent repair shops.

"The aftermarket repair industry has not been given all the information it needs to make repairs," said Stephen Sayle of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies, who this month re-upped as a lobbyist for CARE. As cars become more computerized, he said, mechanics require more know-how to fix them and they do not always get it, leaving consumers with no option but to go to dealer-owned garages, which are often more expensive.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, among others, disagrees and is fighting back. The alliance's Wade Newton said that CARE's claims are exaggerated and that its proposal, if enacted, could jeopardize car security systems by revealing how to disarm them.

Nonetheless, CARE plans to flaunt its consumerist appeal, which it thinks will gain traction in the Democratic-controlled Congress. "We do believe that we have a better chance this year," said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a CARE lobbyist.

Big Money = Big Friends?

If lobbyists want time with lawmakers, all they require is money -- lots of money. But do they get a sympathetic hearing as well?

Tomorrow, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and three other top Democrats on his powerful panel are headlining a D.C. fundraiser for another committee member, Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.). The price of admission: $1,000 to $5,000.

In a letter to potential donors, Frank said Marshall needs campaign cash because he represents a tough district. And Frank said he would give pleaders before his committee a fair hearing. "It is very important for us as Democrats to show that we are fully aware of the importance of the financial services industry," he writes, "and to demonstrate that we are able to integrate the values that the Democratic Party has stood for with support for that intermediation role."

Hires of the Week

Democrats are not the only people getting lucrative lobbying jobs these days. Robert S. Winters, former chief tax counsel for the GOP-led House Ways and Means Committee, has been hired by Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. And Philip G. Ki ko, former general counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, joined Foley & Lardner.

Elsewhere, B&D Consulting added former assistant education secretary Henry Johnson and three former Democratic congressional staffers -- Robert J. Ehrich, Peggie L. Rice and Josh Andrews.

The American Association for Justice appointed William Schulz as vice president for communications, replacing Chris Mather, the new political director of Change to Win, a national coalition of labor unions.

Getting Lobbied by an Expert

Last week I asked for the names of lobbyists and PR specialists who have interesting sidelines. I got several good recommendations, including a terrific one that I plan to feature in next week's column.

But one candidate was also notable for his method of getting my attention. Neil Hare, former vice president of communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (and a fledgling novelist), instigated a mini-letter-writing campaign (read: grass-roots lobbying effort) that helped direct at least half a dozen e-mails into my inbox.

"I did talk to a couple of chamber colleagues about it," Hare admitted in an e-mail. "They said they'd email you about it because they thought you'd be interested and I said sure."

Thanks, Neil. But next time, forget the AstroTurf.

Please send e-mail to kstreet@washpost.com.

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