To Lure Obama, Fundraisers Briefly Ban Contributions

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 11:55 AM

To get President Obama to headline a June 18 fundraiser, the Democratic congressional committees agreed to ban contributions from political action committees and lobbyists -- for all of one day.

For every other day of the year, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will continue to collect money from such groups, just as their Republican counterparts do.

The arrangement has raised hackles on the left and the right, prompting allegations that the fundraising arms for Democratic lawmakers are being hypocritical. A group co-founded by Democratic consultant Joe Trippi launched a campaign today arguing that the two committees should follow the lead of Obama and the Democratic National Committee in refusing contributions from PACs and lobbyists year-round.

"This isn't just hypocritical -- it defies common sense that you'd think the public would believe this was a principled stand against special-interest influence," more than 50 activists wrote in a letter released this morning by Change Congress, which advocates public financing for lawmakers. "For 364 days a year, your rules would allow members of Congress to leave a hearing about regulating Wall Street and then walk straight to the DSCC and DCCC offices to 'dial for dollars' from Wall Street lobbyists who want more bailout money and less accountability to taxpayers."

Officials with the committees said that while they are adhering to Obama's rules for the June fundraiser, they are comfortable with collecting donations from other sources for the rest of the year.

"The fundraising we do is fully transparent," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for the DCCC. "We show where all the money is coming from."

The dispute illuminates the rapidly shifting terrain surrounding ethics and campaign finance issues during the early months of the Obama administration, which has taken dramatic steps to limit the influence of lobbyists and corporate interests at the White House but must also contend with the realities of political fundraising in Washington.

Obama won election in November with the help of an unprecedented fundraising campaign that relied on millions of small donors and a cutting-edge Internet donation system that drew on Obama's unique appeal as a candidate. He has pledged to continue to forgo political contributions from PACs and registered lobbyists. The DNC, which is headed by Obama pick Gov. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia and is home to Obama's 13 million-name e-mail list, has agreed to abide by the same rules.

"The president instituted these rules because he believes it's important to fulfilling his pledge to change the way business is done in Washington," said DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse. "He thinks it's important whenever he's involved that those rules and restrictions are abided by."

But other parts of the Democratic money machine lag badly behind Republicans, and party officials say privately that they would fall even further behind without being able to collect money from PACs, lobbyists and other major donors. Federal Election Commission records show that the three major GOP campaign committees had more than $20 million on hand at the end of March; the three Democratic committees, by contrast, were $5.5 million in the red.

One Democratic official, who declined to be identified discussing political strategy, said the committees would be at a fundamental disadvantage to Republicans if they swore off all contributions from PACs, lobbyists and other large donors. "It's hard to understand this attack," the official said. "The fact that we're holding a different standard for this event at Obama's request should not be a reason for criticism."

The dispute over the fundraising rules also highlights continuing tensions between senior Democrats in Washington and "net-roots" activists, who played a major role in the 2004 presidential run by former Vermont governor Howard Dean and have become an influential force within the Democratic base. Change Congress, which endorses expanded public financing for candidates, was co-founded last year by Trippi, who managed Dean's campaign, and Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford University law professor and Internet activist.

The letter released today was signed by Lessig and 50 national and local political bloggers across the country.

"The public is tired of political gamesmanship," the letter reads. "Please recognize that your 'one day of reform' is absurd on its face and, if left standing, an embarrassment to your organizations. We urge you to announce a 365-day ban of PAC and lobbyist contributions -- at a minimum."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company