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For Campaign Contributions by the Wheelbarrow, the Back Door Is Open

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Surely a presidential contest between such well-known campaign finance reformers as Barack Obama and John McCain will be free of big donations from fat cats, right?

Not really.

Both candidates have established "joint fundraising committees," which magically -- and legally -- transform what we all thought was the contribution limit of $2,300 per person per election into donations that can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The committees, which have names like "McCain Victory 2008" and "Democratic White House Victory Fund," will funnel funds from rich folks to the candidates' primary campaigns (that's the $2,300 part), to the national party (up to $28,500) and, in McCain's case, to state parties as well ($10,000 each).

An individual can donate up to $65,500 per election cycle to all parties and political action committees.

Some gadflies that backed past efforts at reform by Obama and McCain are unhappy about the new committees. "Campaign finance limits are supposed to prevent the undue influence of big contributors," said Taylor Lincoln of the liberal group Public Citizen. "By accepting contributions of up to nearly $70,000, McCain and Obama have blown a gaping hole in the integrity of our campaign finance system."

The joint committees will act as conduits for tens of millions of dollars, predicted Robert K. Kelner of the law firm Covington & Burling. "There continues to be an infinite number of ways to raise very large sums of money, even in the post-McCain-Feingold world," he said.

Oh, well.

An Ethical Scoop

Even with the advent of tough new restrictions on gifts, Congress is still making room for a traditional treat: ice cream.

The International Dairy Foods Association plans to hold its 26th Annual Capitol Hill Ice Cream Party next month. The event is always a highlight of the year for lawmakers, staffers and mooching journalists.

And that's not all. The anti-poverty One Campaign, made famous by rock star Bono, will sponsor an Ice Cream Social tomorrow on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol. Ben & Jerry's is donating the sweet stuff, and hundreds of people are expected to attend.

But the new lobbying restrictions have reined in the festivities a little. Attendees at tomorrow's event can get no more than a single scoop at a time. Cones and disposable cups with plastic spoons will be used -- not fancy plates and silverware -- for fear the event might turn into something approaching a meal, which would be forbidden.

Navigating the ethics rules was "insane," said Tom Sheridan, a lobbyist for the One Campaign. "At one point I said, 'It's not worth it.' " But he persevered, allowing free ice cream to remain a staple on Capitol Hill.

Rejecting the Good Stuff

Washington interest groups usually want more for themselves. Today, one organization will start a crusade to get less.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget plans to unveil a program designed to nudge presidential candidates toward policies that, for a change, would not widen the federal budget deficit and might even narrow it a bit.

Every month, the nonpartisan organization will examine a different policy of each nominee and lay out its costs, subtly applying pressure for austerity.

"That puts us at odds with just about everybody else," said the committee's president, Maya MacGuineas. "The conversation needs to shift to the types of taxes that need to go up and the spending that needs to go down -- quite the opposite of the conversation that normally goes on."

Food Fight

Ethanol makers and food processors are not getting along. The processors complain that rocketing demand for ethanol, a grain-based fuel additive, is forcing up the cost of food, and they don't like that at all. Ethanol makers say such claims are exaggerated.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents companies such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and Procter & Gamble, is getting fairly aggressive. Last week, Scott Riehl, the association's vice president for state affairs, fired off a memo seeking ammunition for further attacks.

According to the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post, the association is "preparing letters to a number of Governors" and is in need of "Antidotal [sic] Evidence" to show that food price inflation is being fueled by growing ethanol demand.

"Any examples you could quickly provide me would be of great benefit," Riehl wrote to the association's state affairs committee. "What does this inflation mean to the cost of a box of corn flakes, a case of soda, a bag of cookies, pancake mix -- we need to put this in dollars and cents."

Now all of us can look forward to those letters and what we hear will be called the "Food Before Fuel Campaign."

Lose Some, Win Some

The lobbying firm formed by former senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) recently lost a major client. When the massive patent-reform bill got bogged down in the Senate, the Coalition for Patent Fairness -- largely a tech industry group -- terminated the firm's contract.

But do not weep for the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group. As soon as word got out that the techies had dumped them, the senators were flooded with offers from drug companies, which happened to be the tech industry's mortal enemies on the patent bill.

No deals have been struck yet, I hear, but any retention of the senators by pharmaceutical companies will involve issues well beyond patents.

Hire of the Week

Lorraine A. Voles, until recently communications director for the congressional office of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), has joined Fannie Mae as a senior vice president.

The move is a reunion of sorts. Voles, who was communications director to Al Gore when he was vice president, worked previously at the public relations firm Porter Novelli. There, her boss was Charles V. Greener, who is now Voles's boss at Fannie Mae.

Greener had been the mortgage finance giant's senior vice president in charge of communications and is now chief of staff to Fannie Mae chief executive Daniel H. Mudd. Voles is taking his old job. Before he joined Porter Novelli, Greener was a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

That's right: A former mouthpiece for Clinton and Gore is working quite happily for a former GOP spokesman -- for a second time. Only in Washington.

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

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