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Liberal groups revisit effort to make 'corporate welfare' an issue in elections

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 12:00 PM

Afew left-leaning activist groups joined the White House last year in trying to focus voter ire on corporate money in politics, but the effort didn't have much impact: Democrats lost the House in a landslide and weakened their hold on the Senate.

But many liberal groups are convinced that 2012 could be different. Spurred on in part by the labor battles in Wisconsin and Ohio, a variety of Democratic-leaning activists are focusing their messages on the idea that corporate America has an outsized influence on national politics through campaign contributions and lobbying.

Protesters in the Wisconsin labor fight have focused on the role played by David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers who financially supported Gov. Scott Walker (R) and who have deep ties to Washington-based conservative groups. In a separate development, a new coalition of progressive activists known as U.S. Uncut held demonstrations at more than 50 Bank of America branches across the country last weekend as part of a campaign against "corporate welfare."

And Wednesday, the League of Conservation Voters teamed with the Public Campaign Action Fund to criticize eight House members for voting against a cut in oil subsidies as part of the short-term budget resolution. The groups said that each of the lawmakers had received generous contributions from employees and corporations in the oil and gas sector.

David Donnelly, the action fund's national campaign director, said that these and other events are part of a strategic effort by liberal groups to focus on disparities between the wealthiest Americans and the middle class. Donnelly's group is advising other activists on how to tie that message to data about lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions from corporations.

"I think we're seeing a shift in voice and strategy," Donnelly said. "What we've seen over the past year is the growing awakening to the problem of money in politics and how it impacts regular people's lives."

Last year, many Democratic-leaning groups tried to gain traction by railing against the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , which allowed unlimited corporate spending on elections.

But Michael Lux, chief executive of the Progressive Strategies consulting firm, said Democrats failed to tie those issues to the concerns of regular voters.

"It's pretty clear that if you tie money in politics and special-interest lobbying with a middle-class economic message, that is actually quite powerful," Lux said. "People generally agree when you talk about special interests and corporate interests having too much power."

Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said that demonizing corporations "tends to fall on deaf ears," especially in a struggling economy.

"In my opinion, the liberal groups and the union effort to create a class-warfare argument is outside the mainstream voter concerns of growing jobs and the economy," said Bonjean, co-founder of Singer Bonjean Strategies. "It didn't work last year. Why would you want to repeat it again?"

To 'enhance' Gaddafi

Unlike Egypt and several other Arab nations facing political upheaval, Libya has not had a longtime roster of formally registered lobbyists in Washington.

But the Sunlight Foundation reported this week that one U.S. consulting firm seemed to play that role for a while - although it never registered as an official lobbyist for a foreign power.

Memos leaked by Libyan opposition groups show that Monitor Group of Cambridge, Mass., was paid $250,000 a month to "enhance the profile of Libya and Muammar Qadhafi" from 2006 to early 2008.

The work included arranging visits to Tripoli by U.S. notables including Anne-Marie Slaughter, now a high-ranking official in the State Department.

Monitor said in the memos that it was "not a lobbying organization" but that its efforts were aimed at introducing Libyan leaders to "important international figures that will influence other nations' policies towards the country." The firm said that it "had met with senior officials in the United States government to share its perspective on Libya" and worked to gain "publication of positive articles on Libya," the memos show.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires firms or individuals to file disclosure forms if they undertake "any activity" aimed at influencing the U.S. government or the U.S. public on behalf of a foreign nation.

In response to questions, Monitor said in a recent statement that "our work was focused on helping the Libyan people work towards an improved economy and more open governmental institutions."

"We sought, consistently, to enable such progressive developments," the statement said.

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