Shakedown On K Street

Even in the face of the Abramoff scandal, lawmakers are still using high-pressure tactics to squeeze donations out of Washington lobbyists

The conventional wisdom: Crass corporate lobbyists lavish millions of dollars on lawmakers in a transparent attempt to buy influence on Capitol Hill. But in the carpeted corridors of K Street, the 11,500 people who earn their living in the influence-peddling profession know a different reality. More often than not, they understand that money is vacuumed up to Capitol Hill by demands from members of Congress. "Everybody thinks it's the interest groups buying the members," says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "A lot of the time it's the members shaking down the interest groups."

Despite the guilty plea of fallen superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, Capitol Hill doesn't hesitate to turn to K Street for campaign cash. One prominent business lobbyist was so aggravated by attacks on his brethren by money-raising members of Congress that he collected every fund-raising invitation letter he received for a month. The total for January: more than 60. He dutifully sent checks for most even though he says that he has never asked half of those lawmakers for anything. "I'm doing it because it's expected," he laments. "If you want to be in the game, you've got to pay."

That game can be expensive. One Washington lobbyist who asked not to be identified says he gave money to the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for a House seat. After the election, the Republican winner called to demand a check -- bigger than the original gift. Why? "The late train is a hell of a lot more expensive than the early train," the lobbyist says he was told.

Lawmaker solicitations are legion and often quite creative. Take the case of House Financial Services Chairman Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) and his book club. Each month a junior member of Oxley's committee picks a book and distributes copies to financial lobbyists to read and discuss. The price of admission is a contribution to the featured member. The lobbyists get face time with Oxley, who largely controls the Washington agenda for their industries. Oxley, who is retiring after 2006, wins the loyalty of his low-ranking colleagues by helping them score contributions. But the sessions are hardly educational: Panel members' tastes run more to motivational screeds than to tomes on finance, attendees say. "I've never read one of the books," says a regular. "Are you kidding me? Read? I went to law school."

Advancing literacy in the legal profession isn't the point. While Oxley has never personally pressured him to ante up, says another financial-services lobbyist, he feels compelled to attend. "I feel like I have to give, even though I never otherwise would, because it's coming from Oxley," the lobbyist says. Oxley aides did not return repeated calls for comment.

If Oxley has created a group of reluctant bookworms, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) has revived the charm of an old-fashioned ride on the rails at newfangled prices. For just $2,000 a person (or $5,000 per PAC), lobbyists were given the opportunity on Jan. 20 to spend almost eight hours with the chairman aboard a train bound for San Antonio from Fort Worth. In a glossy brochure Barton described the event, which included a rolling game of Texas Hold 'Em and an after-hours visit to the Alamo, as "a hot ticket." Barton's campaign consultant did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

A not-so-movable feast was hosted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Lobbyists for warring sides of the asbestos trust fund legislation were invited to a $500-a-head, $1,000-per-PAC event at Specter's Georgetown apartment on Feb. 6. Specter says it was coincidental that his annual birthday fund-raiser was scheduled one day before the Senate debated the asbestos bill, which Specter co-sponsored. "No special group has been targeted," Specter says.

Republicans have no monopoly on Washington's fund-raising bazaar. One lobbyist recently received an invitation for a Mar. 8 fund-raiser for Representative William J. Jefferson (D-La.) at Democratic National Committee headquarters. The invitation prominently noted Jefferson's service on the tax-writing House Ways & Means Committee. It did not mention that a federal grand jury may be probing his dealings with U.S. businesses trying to land contracts in Africa. A former Jefferson aide has pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting bribery of a federal official. Jefferson has denied wrongdoing. Both his congressional office and campaign fund-raiser declined to comment.

Such invitations are the rule, not the exception, in Washington, where campaign shops churn out fancy engraved invitations and spam e-mail targeting K Street. One GOP lobbyist says that in prime fund-raising season he receives five to six e-mails a day from the Bellwether Consulting Group, a GOP fund-raising firm in Washington. "I don't open 'em. Delete, delete, delete," he says.

Sometimes the squeeze isn't the least bit subtle. One lobbyist, who requested anonymity, returned from a meeting with a Democratic senator to find a message on the office voice mail saying where the check could be sent.

Capitol Hill's high-pressure tactics aren't new. Former House Majority Leader Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) first targeted the lobbying community in the mid-1980s when he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But the squeeze tightened after the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 and launched the K Street Project to reverse the lobbying community's pro-Democrat tilt. Tactics masterminded by Representative Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) fueled a tenfold increase in lobbyists' donations to Republicans over a decade, from $1.2 million to $11.6 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lawmakers strongly deny exerting undue pressure. They say they need to solicit lobbyists because of the skyrocketing cost of campaigns, particularly television advertising. "Unless and until we stop the outrageous expense of political campaigning in America, we're going to continue to be beholden to those who are well-off and well-connected," says Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). "You've got to spend a lot of time on the phone begging for money."

But grasping politicians can't put all the blame on expensive campaigns. Most incumbents choose to raise oodles of cash to discourage serious competition and to create bulging war chests to pass along to colleagues. The benefit: They collect chits for future leadership contests.

Some lobbyists are having second thoughts about today's pay-to-play mind-set. "As a conservative, I've always opposed government involvement," says Stanton D. Anderson, a Washington business lobbyist. "But it seems to me that the real answer to this so-called lobbyist reform crisis is federal financing of congressional elections."

That kind of radical change won't happen in Republican Washington. Even proposals to bar lobbyists from donating to lawmakers or raising money for them have little chance of winning votes among the incumbents whose seats are protected by the current system. But some denizens of K Street wouldn't mind a ban. "Please, make it illegal for lobbyists to give money to political campaigns," says one Republican business rep. "Make my day."

By Richard S. Dunham and Eamon Javers, with Lorraine Woellert in Washington

— With assistance by Lorraine Woellert

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.