Congress Avoids Lobbyists' Fundraising in U.S. Ethics Debate

By Jonathan D. Salant

March 31 (Bloomberg) -- Representatives debating new U.S. restrictions on lobbyists next week will be able to slip out at lunchtime -- to attend political fundraising events sponsored by lobbyists.

Lobbyists representing companies including Verizon Communications Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have scheduled at least four fundraisers for lawmakers during the week of April 3 as House panels begin drafting the ethics legislation.

Congress is focusing its first major overhaul of lobbying rules in a decade on the trips, meals and gifts that lawmakers receive from corporate representatives. What it isn't addressing are the millions of dollars collected by lobbyists at fundraising events and through other means. The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group, says lobbyists have served as treasurers of 79 lawmakers' political committees since 1998.

``If you don't do something about the fundraising, you can't call it real reform,'' said Rogan Kersh, a political science professor who teaches courses on lobbying at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in New York.

Staging congressional fundraisers is an important part of his job, said lobbyist Wright Andrews, a partner in the Washington-based law firm of Butera & Andrews. ``Of course you sponsor them,'' said Andrews, whose clients include Cincinnati- based Federated Department Stores Inc. and Spring House, Pennsylvania-based Advanta Corp. ``I personally consider it mandatory to be effective in this town. If you don't, you don't have as good access.''

Nothing Unseemly

Several lawmakers said there's nothing unseemly about raising money at an event hosted by lobbyists. ``Nobody expects, by hosting a fundraiser, they'd get me to vote in any particular fashion,'' said Representative Steve Pearce, 58, a New Mexico Republican whose fundraiser earlier this month was hosted by lobbyists for companies including Houston-based Burlington Resources Inc. and Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp.

Congress is considering lobbying legislation in response to the scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has admitted to defrauding his clients and trying to corrupt public officials. Abramoff's former restaurant, Signatures, was a leading Washington venue for lawmakers to raise money: Between 2001 and 2004, at least 55 fundraisers were held there by members of Congress, according to data compiled by Dwight L. Morris & Associates, a Bristow, Virginia-based company that tracks campaign finance.

Temporary Trip Ban

The legislation being considered by the House would ban lawmakers from taking privately funded trips before the November elections and prevent lobbyists from riding along when lawmakers fly on corporate jets. Senate legislation passed on March 29 would ban all gifts and meals from lobbyists. Both measures would double to two years the waiting period before a former lawmaker can lobby on Capitol Hill.

Groups pushing for stronger lobbying laws, such as Common Cause and Public Citizen, say the legislation should also cut the financial ties between members of Congress and lobbyists.

``They're addicted to campaign money,'' Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Washington-based Common Cause, said of the lawmakers. ``And the lobbyists are the people who provide it for them.''

Separate Issue

Even some lawmakers who favor stronger lobbying rules say campaign-finance issues should be taken up separately, as part of an overhaul of the way congressional elections are funded.

``That's not the crux of what we're trying to do with lobby reform,'' said Representative Martin Meehan, 49, a Massachusetts Democrat. ``The only way to get at lobbyist fundraising is to get at public financing of campaigns.''

House committees will draft the lobby legislation with an eye toward bringing it to the full body sometime after lawmakers return from the Easter-Passover recess during the last week of April.

On April 5, a day after the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation, lobbyists for such companies as Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis AG and New York- based Verizon are scheduled to host a fundraising event for Representative Bobby Jindal, a Louisiana Republican.

The next day, the Washington-based firm of Patton Boggs LLP, whose clients include Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and New York-based JPMorgan Chase & Co., will host a luncheon at its offices for Representative Jim McCrery, another Louisiana Republican. Patton Boggs spokesman Brian Hale declined comment.

The offices of Jindal, 34, and McCrery, 56, didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

`More Than Ironic'

``That's more than ironic that people are doing fundraising next week while we're contemplating lobbying reform,'' said Representative Louise Slaughter of New York, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, which held a hearing on the legislation yesterday. Slaughter, 76, has no lobbyist-sponsored fundraisers scheduled, spokesman Eric Burns said.

The Senate measure approved this week would require lobbyists to disclose their campaign donations and the fundraising events they arranged. The Senate declined to act on proposals to ban lobbyists from holding fundraisers or serving as treasurers of members' campaign committees.

The House version is silent on lobbyists' fundraising, except for a requirement that they report campaign donations.

``I don't think they should be particularly singled out and denied the ability to participate the way other Americans can,'' said Representative Tom Cole, 56, an Oklahoma Republican.

The lobbyists who help raise money are doing it as a favor for lawmakers who are already their allies, not to persuade anyone to come over to their side, said Jonathan Slade, a principal with the Washington-based Cormac Group.

``You're basically raising money for people who already agree with you or who are already on your side,'' said Slade, whose firm's clients include San Antonio-based AT&T Inc. and New York-based Time Warner Inc. ``It's not like you're raising money and someone moves over to your side because of it.''

To contact the reporter on this story:
Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at .

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