Sen. Barack Obama’s ban on contributions from lobbyists and PACs has irritated Democratic lobbyists and fundraisers, who say that Democratic congressional candidates can’t — and won’t — turn their backs on such a steady stream of campaign cash.
“Quite honestly, we’re taking what we can get,” said a top aide to a House Democratic candidate facing a competitive race in November. “The amount of money needed for a campaign today is just so huge that you really have to look under every rock.”
At a campaign appearance in Virginia last week, Obama said that lobbyists don’t fund his campaign and “will not fund our party,” either. The Democratic National Committee will play by Obama’s rule, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said last week that they would continue to accept contributions from lobbyists and PACs; spokesmen for the committees said new ethics rules already provide plenty of transparency.
Although some lawmakers adopt their own giving rules, including bans on lobbyist and corporate PAC giving, Democrats in Congress haven’t exactly rushed to embrace Obama’s rule.
It’s a pragmatic decision. Congressional campaigns — both Democratic and Republican — generally rely much more on PAC and lobbyist money than presidential campaigns do.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Democratic House candidates have received more than $103 million from PACs this election cycle.
Sheila Krumholz, the center’s executive director, says House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has received a higher percentage of his campaign contributions from PACs this cycle than has any other member of Congress.
Democratic Senate candidates have taken in about $20.5 million from PACs. By contrast, the 12 Democratic presidential candidates combined have raised just $2.5 million from PACs — a tiny share of the $547 million they’ve raised to date.
Democratic lobbyists complain that Obama’s ban has failed to account for the realities confronting candidates who lack the fundraising appeal of an electrifying presidential candidate.
“I’m curious how much [the Obama campaign] thought about this decision,” said one Democratic lobbyist. “I take Obama at his word that he’s serious about changing the culture of Washington. But he’s also got to realize that right now, he’s the Babe Ruth of politics. You’ve got a lot of other people out there who are AAA ballplayers; they don’t have the ability to do what he’s doing in terms of raising money and wowing crowds.”
Another Democratic lobbyist said Obama’s ban effectively tars everyone who can’t live up to it.
“Now you’re implying that the House and Senate Democrats — and Republicans — are scumbags that take lobbyist money,” the lobbyist fumed.
Republicans wasted no time in highlighting the disconnect between the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee and the congressional campaign committees.
“They plead for donations on K Street with a tin cup in their hands and then have the audacity to self-righteously proclaim themselves agents of ‘change’ and cheer Obama on as he bashes lobbyists in Washington on the campaign trail,” said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But the GOP won’t go as far as to directly challenge congressional Democrats to give up the money. That’s because the Republicans need the PAC and lobbyist checks just as much as the Democrats do.
House Republicans have raised $66 million from PACs so far this cycle; Senate Republicans have collected close to $27 million from PACs.
Unless Republicans ae willing to walk away from that money themselves, Democrats say GOP candidates will have a hard time making hay out of anyone else’s failure to live up to the Obama model.
Add it all up, and seasoned fundraisers say they don’t expect to see congressional candidates from either party embracing Obama-style bans anytime soon. Indeed, by prohibiting PAC and lobbyist contributions from flowing into his campaign or the DNC, Obama’s decree could actually increase PAC and lobbyist giving to the congressional committees and individual campaigns.
Giving up that money would “be a one-day positive news story and that’s it,” said a former Democratic Party fundraiser. “So you’d get one little bump out of it [and] nobody would remember in November.”
But even if Obama’s ban doesn’t have an impact on the overall money game, many Washington insiders view the condemnations of their professions by the campaigns of both Obama and Sen. John McCain as overly simplistic and counterproductive.
“There’s nothing wrong with lobbyist and PAC money, because the government can’t be bought,” said Nicholas Allard, co-chairman of the public policy department at lobbying firm Patton Boggs and a veteran of many Democratic campaigns, including former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 White House bid.
Allard said lobbyists volunteer their time and make political contributions because they love the thrill of politics, want to support their party and even hope to secure a position within an administration or congressional staff — not to win influence for clients.
While he regrets some of the implications of Obama’s and McCain’s positions on lobbyists, Allard sees a very positive sign in Obama’s fundraising prowess and the confidence with which he can ban contributions from federal lobbyists and PACs.
Not only has Obama shown he can use the Internet to raise more money, at a faster pace, from more people — most of whom live outside the Beltway — he’s also used the Web to connect with voters, reducing at least some of the need for spending on expensive television ads — the part of modern campaigns largely responsible for the escalating cost, Allard said.
If that trend extends down to congressional races — and Allard thinks it will — the appearance and reality of fat cat donors and industry bundlers trading cash for favors will lessen on its own.
“It’s incredible how Sen. Obama has democratized the fundraising process,” Allard said. “You’re going to look back at this election like the Kennedy-Nixon debate,” which historians say marked the advent of television’s campaign dominance, “as the benchmark of a new media taking over.”