An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. He is a member of the committee, but not the chairman. This version has been corrected.
Lawmakers seek cash during key votes
Sunday, December 26, 2010; 12:00 AM
Numerous times this year, members of Congress have held fundraisers and collected big checks while they are taking critical steps to write new laws, despite warnings that such actions could create ethics problems. The campaign donations often came from contributors with major stakes riding on the lawmakers' actions.
For three weeks in June, for instance, the members of a joint House and Senate committee worked to draft final rules for regulating the financial industry in the wake of its 2008 meltdown. During that time, the 35 members of the drafting committee collected $440,000 in donations from that same industry, which was then lobbying heavily for looser rules.
Earlier this month, the chairman of the Senate committee overseeing tax policy, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), gave himself a birthday-party fundraiser - on the same day that the chamber took its first vote on an $858 billion tax package that would provide breaks to wealthy citizens and business interests.
Members of Congress contacted for this article declined to answer questions about ethics rules and the possible appearance of impropriety. Instead, they stressed that their votes can't be bought.
"Money has no influence on how Senator Baucus makes his decisions," Baucus spokeswoman Kate Downen said. "The only factor that determines Senator Baucus's votes is whether a policy is right for Montana and right for our country."
But ethics watchdogs complain that, in a race for money to help them win reelection, lawmakers routinely ignore congressional ethics rules that urge them to avoid fundraising around the same time that they are making key lawmaking decisions. The rules say that such sensitive timing could give the appearance that donors are improperly influencing decisions.
The Washington Post found that the pattern of crunch-time fundraising has continued this year, even after a congressional investigative office warned this summer that it could violate ethics rules. The Post analysis - using data from two nonprofit organizations, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation - scrutinized lawmakers involved in pushing key legislation and donations made to them by interested parties.
"Citizens generally feel this kind of thing falls between the bookends of 'icky' and 'bribery,' " said David Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which charts campaign donations and special interest influence. "It makes people wonder: Is the donor making the donation because they are trying to get a particular legislative action? Or is the member soliciting the donation because they feel they have a whole bunch of special interests over a barrel at that moment and can profit from that?"
Members of Congress say that donations close to key votes are often coincidental. Some argue that because legislative action and fundraising happen all the time on Capitol Hill, it is impossible to know when the two are connected.
Ethics watchdogs say that instead of protesting their innocence, members should write clearer rules, disclose all fundraisers or both, in order to address public concern that monied donors are able to buy access at critical stages in lawmaking.
"What this reveals is just how much this is general operating procedure on Capitol Hill, raising money around key legislative decisions," said Nancy Watzman, who oversees analysis of political fundraisers for the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency. "This hits right to the core of how lawmakers get and keep their jobs. And they complain when you show the public how it works."
A test case
The issue of the timing of donations came up this summer when reports surfaced that eight members were under investigation by the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. They had solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from financial firms just before a critical House vote last December on new regulations for Wall Street. The ethics office was looking at whether they should have avoided those donations because of the potential for or appearance of impropriety.