New records show some lobbyists are top fundraisers for political candidates

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

For more than a decade, Brian L. Wolff was the quintessential Washington insider, serving as one of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's closest aides as she rose through the House and helping to raise millions as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But the fundraising didn't stop once he left the DCCC. As a top lobbyist at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents major power companies in the climate debate, Wolff has bundled together more than $600,000 in contributions for the DCCC within the past year -- and he hopes to raise $2 million more for the committee by November.

"It's my night job," Wolff said of his fundraising efforts. "It's something that's an investment for me and that's something I want to be able to help with. . . . I know the national base of the party, and they know me."

Wolff is among nearly 160 registered lobbyists who have raised at least $9 million for political parties and federal candidates over the past year, according to a Washington Post analysis of records filed under new Federal Election Commission requirements.

For the first time, the records provide a clear public view into one of the most influential subcultures in Washington: lobbyists who moonlight by bundling campaign contributions for candidates and their political parties. The fundraising occurs even as the same lobbyists attempt to shape legislation to benefit their clients, including energy firms, insurers and other corporations with major financial stakes in the outcome of federal legislation.

"This is one of the most critical functions that many lobbyists play in this town," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that advocates tougher campaign finance regulations. "It's what gives them their access and, in some respects, their power."

Bundling has become a cornerstone of the money game in Washington, allowing lobbyists and other fundraisers to funnel multiple contributions to campaigns without running afoul of individual donation limits. The practice is a frequent target of criticism from reformers, and President Obama proposed new limits on lobbyist contributions and bundling earlier this year.

The new FEC records come as the result of 2007 legislation, also supported by Obama, requiring reports of contributions of $16,000 or more that are bundled by lobbyists. The process is riddled with loopholes, however: The reports do not identify the specific contributors whose donations were bundled, and under FEC rules some recipients don't have to file at all if they don't already keep track of bundlers.

Even so, the new data provide a revealing look at the central role of lobbyist-fundraisers in channeling money to candidates, particularly to Democrats, who currently control the levers of power in Washington. About three-quarters of the contributions documented in the reports went to Democratic committees or candidates, with the DCCC ($2.4 million) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($1.1 million) topping the list. (The Democratic National Committee, following Obama's lead, does not accept contributions from registered lobbyists.)

The DCCC's status as the top recipient is ironic given that the committee chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), wrote the ethics law provision that required the disclosures. DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said the committee strives to report all contributions connected to lobbyist fundraising and suggested that Republicans are less forthcoming.

"What we do is fully transparent and disclosed," Crider said, adding that Van Hollen "sticks to both the spirit and the letter of the law."

On the GOP side, the National Republican Senatorial Committee accepted $870,000 in contributions bundled by lobbyists while the National Republican Congressional Committee took in about $520,000, the records show.

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