THE INFLUENCE GAME: Fundraising e-mails never stop

March 24, 2009 7:35:30 AM PDT
Here's a peek at e-mails popping into lobbyists' inboxes these days offering quality time with members of Congress: _A weekend at the Clearwater, Fla., spring training home of the world champion Philadelphia Phillies with Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., including a game, a meeting with players and a ballpark tour.

_Golf at a Montana course designed by Arnold Palmer and fly fishing on the state's Madison, Gallatin and Yellowstone rivers with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.

_A "Saint Patrick's Day on the Rio Grande" reception at a Tex-Mex restaurant near the Capitol with Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.

There's a catch: Be prepared to contribute plenty of money.

Though it's early in a non-election year, politicians and special interests are blasting out daily e-mails by the truckload, beckoning lobbyists and other would-be donors to fundraisers ranging from the mundane to the exotic. A look at scores of them, provided by recipients, shows they share a straightforward message: Members of Congress would like your help getting in re-elected, and contributors can spend time with them.

"I hope you will be able to join me for Bagels with Ben," says an invitation from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., to a fundraiser this week. "The suggested contribution for this event is $1,000," it adds in the laser-clear style common to the solicitations.

"I hope to see you there!" says one from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., inviting people to a St. Patrick's Day fundraiser for which she, too, asks for $1,000.

Countless fundraisers are held each year, some sponsored by lawmakers, others by lobbyists or trade groups seeking to cement relationships. The National Cattleman's Beef Association plans one in July for Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., a member of the House Agriculture Committee, while lobbyists with Virginia backgrounds from McGuireWoods Consulting have a breakfast this week for Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

A list compiled by the Democrats' House campaign committee runs 22 pages and includes 190 events slated for 2009 for House Democrats alone, with some already planned for October.

With the stalled economy drying up contributions, Republican fundraiser Monica Notzon says she might send 500 to 5,000 e-mail invitations per event.

"I probably get 10 to 15 a day," said lobbyist Butler Derrick, a former House member. "I've gotten so I can recognize them and I just kill most of them."

Hosts compete to draw crowds. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., planned an event this week featuring Muhammad Ali, while Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., is inviting donors to go skeet shooting. Others invite contributors to a Bruce Springsteen concert, a wine-tasting weekend in Oregon, baseball and NCAA basketball tournament games, and weekends in New York or Palm Springs, Calif.

"I could have had it here" in Washington "and it would be the same lobbyists," said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., whose Phoenix-area fundraiser this weekend featured a baseball spring training game, a pro basketball game and golf. "I find people in March like to go to spring training."

Critics see the invitations as subtle pressure for contributions and the events themselves as unfair schmoozing opportunities for those trying to influence federal law and policy.

Lawmakers "are going to send those invitations to lobbyists because they have lots of money," said Nancy Watzman, who has collected thousands of fundraiser invitations since 2005 for the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes government openness. "And they have lots of money because they represent interests that have lots of money."

Many lawmakers and others consider fundraisers simply the way business is done under a system in which campaigns are paid for with privately raised money.

Congressional re-election campaigns can cost millions of dollars. Defenders call fundraisers a harmless chance for contributors to exercise their rights to support and meet with legislators. They say the charges of undue influence are exaggerated.

"Put your money back in your pocket if you think it's going to buy you something other than a club soda and a Swedish meatball," said Michael Fraioli, a veteran fundraiser for some House Democrats.

The solicitations are effective. Lobbyists contributed $34 million to federal candidates in 2007 and 2008, ranking them 16th among more than 80 industries studied by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"You go there with a check in your hand and that's your opportunity to meet with the member" of Congress, lobbyist John Meredith said of fundraisers. "That's kind of how it works."

Even so, some lobbyists are resentful.

"When you have both parties during election periods come up and bash lobbyists, and then you have the audacity to send me a fax asking me to attend your fundraiser, I think it's hypocritical," said lobbyist Paul Miller.

In a long-shot effort at change, lawmakers plan to introduce bipartisan legislation this week that would limit private donations to congressional campaigns to $100 per person and provide $4 of federal funds for each $1 raised privately.

Supporters will be as diverse as the nonpartisan Common Cause, which seeks increased public participation in government, and Cassidy & Associates, a prominent lobbying firm, according to Sarah Dufendach, Common Cause's vice president for legislative affairs.

Follow Action News on Twitter

Get Action News on your website

Follow Action News on Facebook

Click here to get the latest Philadelphia news and headlines from across the Delaware and Lehigh valleys.