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Hirschmann’s Power Play Shot Down

The Congressional Institute is an organization that few outside — or inside — the Beltway have ever heard of.

But a recent behind-the-scenes battle over the makeup of the board of the institute, a nonprofit group funded with corporate dollars and overseen by prominent GOP lobbyists, sheds a little bit of light on how Washington’s power brokers really operate.

A former top aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Susan Hirschmann, was rebuffed in her attempt to win a seat on the nonprofit’s board, despite lobbying on her behalf by a senior aide to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), according to several sources familiar with the incident.

A spot on the Congressional Institute’s board is considered a plum for lobbyists because it gives them access to the organization’s events with GOP lawmakers. The Congressional Institute puts on large gatherings every year, like the recent bicameral GOP retreat at the swank Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, as well as smaller, more exclusive gatherings for party leaders and their top aides. The events are seen as ideal ways for lobbyists to get face time with Members.

Hirschmann, who was DeLay’s chief of staff until last August, now lobbies for the firm Williams & Jensen, which represents such big-name clients as the American Banker’s Association, AOL Time Warner and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Through Williams & Jensen, Hirschmann is already a rank-and-file member of the Congressional Institute. She was thus able take part in the institute’s recent retreat for House and Senate Republicans, along with “about 50” other lobbyists, according to Jerome Climer, the Congressional Institute’s president.

But a seat on the institute’s board would have allowed Hirschmann to attend a more elite gathering of House GOP leaders held in St. Michael’s, Md., a week before the Greenbrier gathering. Hirschmann was not invited to that meeting, while the lobbyists who sit on the institute’s board were.

To help in her campaign to get on the board, Hirschmann got Scott Palmer, Hastert’s chief of staff, to call Michael Johnson, a well-known GOP lobbyist and the board’s chairman, according to several sources. Palmer, who worked closely with Hirschmann during her time in the House, asked Johnson to support her candidacy.

The Congressional Institute, a 501(c)4 nonprofit, relies heavily on the GOP leadership’s goodwill to get senior lawmakers like Hastert to attend its events, so Palmer’s request was taken “very seriously,” said a source close to the situation.

Climer confirmed that Hirschmann sought a spot on the institute’s board of directors.

“Susan has expressed an interest in serving on the board,” said Climer, who added that such decisions are made exclusively by the board.

The list of current board members for the institute reads like a Who’s Who of top Republican lobbyists.

Johnson, a principal with the OB-C Group and a co-founder of the Congressional Institute, is the chairman. OB-C represents corporate heavyweights like American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Association, among others.

Other board members include Barbara Morris-Lent of Verizon, who serves as vice chairwoman; Kevin Burke of the American Apparel & Footwear Association; Mary Sophos of the Grocery Manufacturers of America; Gary Andres of the Dutko Group; David Bockorny of Bergner Bockorny Castagnetti Hawkins and Brain; Frank Cantrel of WorldCom Corp.; Kenneth Cole of General Motors; Marcel Dubois of United Parcel Service; Duane Duncan of Fannie Mae; Bruce Gates of Washington Council Ernst & Young; Edward Hamberger of the Association of American Railroads; Mary McAuliffe of Union Pacific; Kim McKernan, formerly of the OB-C Group; and Dan Meyer of the Duberstein Group.

These lobbyists use their corporate ties to raise money for the institute. According to Climer, the Congressional Institute “gets donations from a nice, broad array of principally corporations from across the country that have been supporting us for a long time.”

A “basic membership” runs $10,000 annually, said Climer, although he emphasized there is no actual fee to join. Overall, the organization raises between $750,000 and $1 million every year, he said, largely through the efforts of its board members.

A seat on the board is more costly, running $25,000, and there is a waiting list of lobbyists seeking to get on.

With that in mind, a number of board members objected to Hirschmann’s request for a place on the board, resenting what some considered a pressure campaign to win a spot.

“It was unfortunate that she tried to do it that way,” said one board member.

This board member said Hirschmann’s request was eventually rejected, despite Palmer’s support.

“For one, there’s not an opening on the board,” said the board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Number two, the people who are on the board are, by and large, people who have been involved with the Congressional Institute for a long time and have done a lot of work raising money.”

Added another board member: “Some people were nervous [about turning down Palmer’s request], but it was the right thing to do.”

Palmer could not be reached for comment, while Hirschmann declined to comment for this article.

Several sources said that another factor in the decision to reject Hirschmann was her involvement with a controversial fundraising operation that has been criticized by campaign finance watchdog groups as being under the control of the House GOP leadership.

Hirschmann is head of the Leadership Forum, a 527 organization set up to raise soft-money contributions that are now banned for the national parties.

The Leadership Forum first accepted, and then several weeks later returned, a $1 million contribution from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Campaign watchdog groups argued the donation showed that the NRCC and GOP Congressional leaders secretly control the Leadership Forum, which would constitute illegal coordination under federal campaign law.

“There were some people who were upset with the Leadership Forum thing,” said a lobbyist familiar with the Hirschmann episode. “Some people just didn’t want to be anywhere near that right now.”

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