Democrats Take Lobbyist Cash as Obama Knocks Special Interests

As President Barack Obama thrashes Republicans for allowing “special interest takeovers of our elections,” his Democratic Party is benefiting from millions of campaign dollars brought in by lobbyists.

Lobbyists raised at least $1.5 million in the first six months of the year to help elect Democrats to the House, according to a report from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. That was the most of any congressional fundraising committee and almost three times as much as the House Republican campaign committee took in from lobbyists.

While Obama criticizes the influence held by lobbyists in Washington, candidates rely on them to help fund increasingly expensive campaigns. Reports released yesterday show lobbyists also personally contributed to Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Fundraising helps lobbyists get in “on the main floor with the Democratic members of Congress as well as the White House,” said Craig Holman, who handles campaign finance issues for Public Citizen, a Washington advocacy group. “When it comes to negotiating legislation, they get to be key players.”

As the result of a 2007 law, party and campaign committees have to report to the Federal Election Commission contributions of more than $16,000 that are raised, or “bundled,” by lobbyists. The lobbyists separately have to report to Congress personal contributions they make to candidates for federal office.

Party Committees

The National Republican Senatorial Committee ranked second among party fundraising committees that reported lobbyist bundling, with $900,750 raised in the first half. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the DCCC’s House counterpart, reported $567,000. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee disclosed $213,775 in lobbyist-bundled donations.

DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer contrasted his party’s efforts to limit the influence of special interests with Republicans, pointing to the 2007 disclosure law passed under Democratic leadership of Congress. He wouldn’t comment on whether bundlers take part in any special DCCC programs.

“Democrats enacted the strongest ethics and lobbying reform in history,” Rudominer said. “What we do is fully transparent and disclosed.”

Obama refused to take lobbyist or political action committee donations during his 2008 presidential campaign. And he unsuccessfully pushed this week for legislation that would require corporations and unions to disclose their spending on political advertising. Republicans in the Senate blocked the measure.

‘Historic Steps’

“The president has taken historic steps to limit the influence of special interests, closing the revolving door between the White House and K Street and making the policymaking process transparent,” White House spokesman Ben LaBolt said. Democrats have also worked to “prohibit corporations from spending limitless amounts to influence elections,” he said.

Soon after taking office, Obama tightened the rules on when top White House aides can lobby the government after leaving their public posts. He also barred lobbyists who join the administration from working on issues they handled in their previous jobs.

Much of the DCCC’s bundling haul came from Brian Wolff, senior vice president at Washington’s Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for electric companies. Wolff, a former political director for Pelosi and executive director at the DCCC, brought in $716,300 in the first half, the FEC report shows.

Wolff was traveling and wasn’t available for comment. Wolff “is someone who has a long history in working in elections and is dedicated to keeping a strong majority,” Rudominer said.

BP Lobbyist

The next biggest lobbyist fundraiser for the DCCC during the first half was Tony Podesta, who raised $144,400 and lobbies on behalf of British oil producer BP Plc among other companies. Podesta said he doesn’t need to raise money to gain access to lawmakers; he said he does it because he’s a Democrat.

“I don’t raise money for anybody I don’t already know and admire,” Podesta said. He and his wife, lobbyist Heather Podesta, have held an annual DCCC fundraiser for years, even when Republicans controlled the House, he said.

Lobbyist Vincent Roberti, who lobbies for United Parcel Service Inc., raised $125,400. His firm was paid $160,000 by Atlanta-based UPS during the first six months of the year to lobby on a House-approved provision that would make it easier for employees of UPS rival FedEx Corp. employees to unionize.

Roberti couldn’t be reached for comment.

Schumer Donations

Democratic leaders in Congress also benefited from the lobbyist fundraising. New York Senator Charles Schumer, the third-ranking Democratic leader in the chamber, reported $389,940 in bundling in the first half; Reid disclosed $182,285. Washington Senator Patty Murray, the Democratic Conference secretary, got $146,800.

In the House, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller each reported more than $134,000 in bundling. The two congressmen, both from California, played vital roles in the passage of health-care overhaul legislation.

Aides to Schumer, Murray, Waxman and Miller weren’t available for comment. Reid spokesman Jim Manley pointed to his boss’s work on health care and the financial regulation bills as evidence that he takes on special interests.

“There is a clear line between official duties and the campaign,” Manley said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kristin Jensen in Washington at kjensen@bloomberg.net; Jonathan D. Salant in Washington at jsalant@bloomberg.net

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