Activists protest to demand Congress stop fundraising from corporate lobbyists

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Washington watchdogs dressed as Founding Fathers "stormed" the marble foyer of a powerful downtown Washington lobbying firm, demanding that members of Congress stop meeting behind closed doors to raise money from corporate lobbyists and instead spend their time working on laws to help the American public.

Security guards held off the campaign finance activists at the elevator banks along with the historical figures accompanying them -- Betsy Ross, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, actors dressed in wigs, brocade costumes and buckled shoes.

Meanwhile, the lobbying work of the prominent Podesta Group hummed along on the ninth floor.

The troupe targeted the Podesta Group because it represents some of the biggest names in corporate America, including BP, Lockheed Martin and Bank of America, and frequently hosts the campaign fundraisers that activists were protesting.

On Wednesday, congressional lawmakers and party committees were scheduled to raise money for their campaigns at 87 separate fundraisers.

"As a founding mother, I have to say I'm so disappointed that there seems to be less and less time for the good members of Congress to do the people's work," said an actor portraying Ross. "I hear there are 87 fundraisers in Washington today!"

"Shame! Shame!" yelled the activists from the pro-public financing groups Common Cause and Public Campaign. Behind them was a massive banner in Olde English font: "Declare Independence from Big Money."

The protesters are rallying support for "Fair Elections Now," new legislation proposed by two Democrats and a Republican that would allow lawmakers to raise money from small-dollar donors in their district and qualify for public matching funds. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. John B. Larson (D-Conn.) and Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) argue the legislation would help end Congress's reliance on corporate cash.

"It's time we take the 'for sale' sign off the Capitol lawn," said Bob Edgar, Common Cause president.

The Podesta Group lobbies for BP, responsible for the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico; its lobbyists have hosted 53 fundraisers in recent years, including four since the April 20 spill, according to fundraising data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation.

Spokespeople for two lawmakers who were beneficiaries of those recent fundraisers, Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Glenn Nye (D-Va.) said their Podesta lobbyist-hosts never lobby them on BP concerns, and wouldn't have gotten much traction if they had.

But the head of the Podesta Group said Wednesday he, too, is weary of the current campaign finance system. "My first job in Washington was working for John Gardner at Common Cause," Tony Podesta said. "I would happily endorse any effort to ban lobbyists from raising or giving political contributions."

The protest was later repeated at the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican social club where 870 fundraisers have been held in the 2010 campaign cycle, according to a Washington Post analysis of fundraiser invitations kept by Sunlight.

The timing of fundraisers has caused some awkwardness, and even ethical questions. On May 12, for example, oil company executives, including BP's chairman, Lamar McKay, appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss the gulf spill. About an hour earlier, House Republicans had gathered a few blocks away for an "oil and gas breakfast" fundraiser with industry members to benefit Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex).

The House Office of Congressional Ethics is investigating eight lawmakers who held fundraisers or raised significant funds from financial firms within hours of a major key House floor vote in December 2009 on regulatory reform of financial services firms.

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