Space entrepreneur scorches some in GOP with lobbying effort

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; A25

Elon Musk is an entrepreneur of the technology age: He made millions selling PayPal, builds space rockets and electric sports cars for a living, and provides regular fodder for tabloids with his rocky personal life.

Now the flamboyant Californian has come to Washington.

Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has emerged as one of the mostprominent backers of President Obama's controversial plan to increase the role of commercial space companies at NASA. The plan could benefit companies such as SpaceX because it calls for relying on private firms for transportation to the international space station and other low-orbit missions.

The plan has sparked an intensive lobbying campaign by old-line space contractors and political opposition from both sides of the aisle. The battle is expected to come to a head soon as lawmakers attempt to reach a compromise.

Musk, a native of South Africa, has spent much of this year meeting with receptive members of Congress, urging supporters to lobby lawmakers and pointedly criticizing key Republicans for opposing Obama's plan. He also has increased the pace of his federal campaign contributions.

Since 2003, Musk has given about $300,000 to federal candidates, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, according to records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. In the first six months of 2010, however, Musk donated nearly $71,000 to Democrats, compared with less than $7,000 to Republicans from him or his company's PAC, the data show.

During a recent interview, Musk bristled at the notion - increasingly asserted by Republican detractors - that he has become a Democratic partisan. After all, he's an avid supporter of Republican Meg Whitman, the California gubernatorial candidate who oversaw the acquisition of PayPal when she headed eBay.

But Musk also acknowledged that he is "a fan of Obama," calling him "a good president" and "a big proponent of competition." He said he has been disappointed in GOP opposition to the administration's NASA plans.

Musk complained publicly that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) refused to meet with him, and he accused Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) of "trying to hurt a Texas company," since SpaceX tests rockets in her state. In July, he urged supporters to lobby against a House NASA bill gutting Obama's proposals, calling it "the sort of senseless pork politics that has driven our national debt to the point where our economy can barely service it."

Such off-the-cuff commentary has earned Musk greater attention - and greater criticism - than his relatively small space company might otherwise attract. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion NASA cargo contract and successfully launched a next-generation rocket, Falcon 9, into orbit in June. Tesla has also received federal aid, including $465 million in low-interest loans approved during the Bush administration.

His personal life only adds to the spectacle. Gossip columnists have chronicled Musk's bitter divorce from his estranged wife and his new romance with British actress Talulah Riley. His business biography served as an inspiration for Tony Stark, the inventor-tycoon played by Robert Downey Jr. in the "Iron Man" movies. (The second film includes a cameo by Musk playing himself.)

John M. Logsdon, who was the longtime director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said Musk "doesn't mind making himself the poster child" because of his self-confidence and ambition. But, he added, it's not clear how much Musk has helped Obama's cause.

"It makes it easier to attack," Logsdon said. "They can say: 'Look at this young South African guy who's never done anything. We're depending on him?' "

Musk said SpaceX would be just one of many players vying for commercial space services under a privatized system, along with Boeing, Orbital Sciences and others.

"Our influence is a tiny fraction of any one of the giant contractors," he said. "We have one guy and an intern doing our lobbying in D.C. - they have whole buildings full of lobbyists."

Musk is exaggerating, but only a bit. SpaceX has 15 lobbyists registered on its behalf, according to disclosure forms. By comparison, space giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin together employ more than 220 lobbyists and spent a combined $16 million on lobbying in the first six months of this year, the data show.

Overall, Musk says, the NASA debate "has diminished my faith in government a little bit."

"For a while I was thinking government doesn't deserve the negative reputation the public has," he said. "But now I think maybe it does."

Campaign finance

Senate Democrats will try again Thursday to pass a new campaign finance disclosure bill, though few seem to believe they have the votes.

The Disclose Act, crafted as a response to a Supreme Court ruling that lifted restrictions on corporate political expenditures, would require companies and unions to provide details about their spending on elections. Senate Republicans torpedoed the bill in July by mustering 41 votes against it.

The outcome is likely to be similar this time, legislative aides said. But Democrats are pushing the bill anyway, trying to force Republicans to vote against it just weeks before the midterm elections.

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