On Capitol Hill, Keeping Score With Cash
By Susan B. Glasser and Ben White
La Colline owner Paul Zucconi shook his head. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wasn't here. The lobbyist pulled out the envelope that held his check and tried the magic words: "But it's being organized by Duberstein -- Ken Duberstein," the Reagan White House chief of staff turned GOP mega-lobbyist.
"I know Mr. Duberstein well," Zucconi replied smoothly. "He's not here." The lobbyist stalked out of the restaurant, headed belatedly around the corner to the Washington Court Hotel and Hastert's breakfast. "It happens all the time," Zucconi confided.
Lost lobbyists are just one hazard of the dizzying whirl that is the fund-raising circuit on Capitol Hill in early summer of this non-election year. The 2000 election determining whether Republicans will hold their majorities in the House and Senate is 500 days away, but members in both parties are consumed with next week's June 30 fund-raising deadline, the first and only time this year they have to disclose the size of their bank accounts.
By this Thursday, time had all but run out for members of Congress. Most events had been held earlier in the year, to provide time to collect on all the pledges of campaign cash by June 30. The lobbyists who write the checks and host the events were breakfasted, lunched and dinnered out.
And yet there were still at least 23 events turned up by The Washington Post on this particular day -- from the two fund-raising breakfasts that were held at La Colline to a baseball outing at Camden Yards 11 hours later. Many were directly organized by individual lobbyists. Some took place at lobbying firms, such as a nighttime barbecue for freshman Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) at the Dutko Group and a reception for Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) at Barbour, Griffith & Rogers.
By nightfall, one oil industry lobbyist had been to a breakfast "meet and greet" (D.C. parlance for an industry event with a member where no money actually changes hands), a lunch for Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.), a cocktail reception for Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) and a $1,000-a-person dinner at the Capital Grille for Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Calif.).
And this on a slow day.
"It's been an unbelievable pace compared with the off-year two years ago," said Republican fund-raiser Nancy Bocskor. "Most of my clients will set records for early fund-raising -- because everyone is so very concerned about retaining the House majority." Another Republican, a lobbyist closely tied to the House GOP leadership, said, "There's a frantic effort to have a good June 30 report."
Many of Thursday's events were industry-specific meals for 10 to 20 -- the railroad lobbyists turning out for Abraham, the insurance types for Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.). Only a few events, such as those for Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) and Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.), were the classic "cattle calls" -- Capitol Hill slang for the big after-work reception.
The members who held fund-raisers Thursday can be roughly divided into two groups: those who did it because they had to, and those who did it simply because they could.
In the first group are those, like Rogan and sophomore Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.), whose seats are targeted next year. Speaker Hastert is in the latter category, of course, as are Reps. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Matsui, both senior members of the Ways and Means Committee.
The sheer proliferation of Washington fund-raisers has been a conscious strategy, urged on by leaders in both parties and both houses. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (Va.) traces his 1993 decision to run for the House to viewing the mid-year report of the Democratic incumbent and realizing that she didn't have enough money.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has been particularly incessant this year in urging members to post a strong showing, creating the Retain Our Majority Project (ROMP) to collect six figures from lobbyists by June 30 for each of 10 vulnerable Republicans.
All of which adds up to a hectic schedule for the lobbyists whose job it is to attend such functions.
"This is a big week," said one, referring to Tuesday's $2 million fund-raiser for Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) at the Washington Hilton and Wednesday's $9 million Republican Senate-House Dinner at the Washington Convention Center. "There's a lot of lobbyists who won't see their kids this week."
Breakfast in the Back Room
Less than 12 hours after Frank Sinatra Jr. finished crooning to the 3,300 Republican members of Congress, lobbyists and corporate bigwigs who made Wednesday night's dinner the party's biggest ever in an off-year, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) and Sen. Abraham had already arrived at La Colline for their own fund-raisers.
Such events are the foundation of La Colline's business, and owner Zucconi is an unusually politically astute host -- where some French restaurateurs might keep a Wine Spectator guide handy, he pulls out his own well-used copy of the congressional facebook to ID his customers. Demand is so high that he added two new private rooms and still is booked solid almost every day Congress is in session.
In the back room, Abraham's breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns is hosted by railroad industry lobbyists. In the front, Kingston's omelettes and grits meal for 22 is sponsored by the lobbying firm of Hurt, Norton Associates, founded by two longtime aides to former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.).
At home in his Savannah-based district, Kingston raises money with $25-a-person barbecues. Here in Washington, the price for lobbyists is $500 a head, though, he noted happily, "some of them gave $1,000" to chat up a member of the Appropriations Committee.
"You have to accept the fact that fund-raising is a reality of this job," Kingston said after the breakfast. But for a well-funded, reasonably safe incumbent such as Kingston, amassing a large war chest can also pose a hazard: His colleagues want a piece of it. Already, he's given about $20,000 to other members at the behest of the leadership. "Unfortunately, you can get cannibalized," he said.
As Kingston's guests trickled out of the restaurant, the Abraham fund-raiser in the back room was just starting to break up. "This just seems to be convenient for folks," Abraham said before ducking into his car.
A few blocks east, at La Brasserie, Matsui was eating eggs Benedict with about 15 lobbyists at a $1,000-a-person event put together by an official of the American Council of Life Insurance. "Generally, he talks about the issues before his committee of jurisdiction, which is Ways and Means," Matsui's spokesman said.
Also at La Brasserie was Rep. Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), attending a "meet and greet" for pharmaceutical types organized by Merck & Co. It was not, strictly speaking, a fund-raiser, just like the breakfast at the same time for freshman Rep. Dennis Moore (D-Kan.), who was getting to know securities industry officials at the National Democratic Club.
"When you are a new member of Congress like Dennis," said Democratic consultant Bob Doyle, "part of getting on top of the issues and building a vibrant political operation is beginning to establish relationships with people."
Lunch at a Lobby Group's Office
In a town that once embraced the three-martini lunch, lunch ironically enough is a much less popular time for fund-raisers.
Members may have to leave at any time to vote and, besides, lobbyists are busy in the middle of the day -- they would rather take care of fund-raising early or relax at the end of the day over a drink and a steak.
Even so, this particular Thursday had three lunchtime fund-raisers, on both sides of the Hill.
,-1 At the Monocle, a Senate-side institution where then-Finance Committee Chairman Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) had his paid breakfast club with lobbyists back in the 1980s, Rep. Rick Lazio (R-N.Y.) raised money for a contemplated entrance into the high-profile New York Senate race.
"I see these lobbyists," said the Monocle's maitre d'. "They look tired -- they have to go to four or five of these a week."
At Barolo, a hot new Italian restaurant on the House side, Rep. Dooley's lunch was in the private room in the back, with three courses served around a huge farm table.
And at Rep. Ryun's lunch at the American Trucking Associations' brick-and-concrete office building on First Street SE, lobbyists for small business, banking and electrical firms ate Cajun rice, green beans and cookies for $500 apiece.
Back in Time for Dinner
By 5:30 p.m., it was time to pay homage to Roth, the 77-year-old Senate Finance Committee chairman who just announced this month that he plans to seek another term.
Lobbyist after lobbyist arrived at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to help with $1,000 checks, pressing past a pair of young children selling $6 boxes of candy for a drug-free schools program. The youngsters made no sales.
Inside, cocktails and artichoke hearts were served, but many guests stayed only long enough to hand over their contributions, some joking with one another on the way out about their cool efficiency.
"I guess the chairman of the Finance Committee draws a pretty good crowd," said Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) as he entered. Roth was expected to raise as much as $200,000 — easily the biggest take of the day.
At the Capital Grille, one lobbyist arrived for a drink with Rep. Rogan in the glass-enclosed "wine room" at the back of the restaurant. He left a few minutes later to drop off his check at the Roth fund-raiser and returned by 7:30 in plenty of time to sit down to dinner with Rogan, a top Democratic target.
Matt Keelen, the fund-raiser who put together Rogan's dinner for 25, was exhausted at the end of a hectic month. "I eat at La Colline, the Capitol Hill Club and the Capital Grille more than I eat at home," he said.
Just before 10:30 p.m., the long day of fund-raising ended a short ride up I-95, when the Boston Red Sox closed out their 2-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles. The Seattle-based law and lobbying firm Preston Gates & Ellis hosted a fund-raiser there for freshman Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.). Sixteen guests drank beer and ate hot dogs in a private suite.
"The congressman is a pretty personable guy," his spokesman said. "He likes to have smaller get-togethers so he can actually have a chance to talk to some of these people."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company