Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) recent call for a ban on campaign contributions from federally registered lobbyists is getting a mixed reception on K Street, and the proposal appears to have few fans in the campaign finance reform community, which has helped nix similar proposals numerous times in recent years.
“Washington’s filled with high-priced lobbyists who walk around with drafted legislation in one hand and envelopes filled with campaign contributions in the other,” Edwards said last week. “These lobbyists run the government, and they own the White House. We ought to say to these lobbyists, ‘You can’t give out campaign money.’ We ought to make that the law of the land.”
Edwards is not the first politician to adopt that mantra.
Ross Perot was a big proponent of banning lobbyists’ money from the system and more recently, President George W. Bush suggested a ban on contributions from lobbyists while Congress is in session — but to no avail. Congress instead stuck to the McCain-Feingold plan for reform, which didn’t contain such a prohibition because authors questioned the constitutionality of such a provision.
Former President Bill Clinton also floated the idea during his first term in the White House, but opted ultimately not to include it in a suggested package of campaign reform ideas because of constitutional and practical concerns, according to those familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions of the idea.
Common Cause spokeswoman Mary Boyle said her group applauds Edwards for “raising the critical issue of the corrupting influence money has in politics” but said that such a ban is not at the top of Common Cause’s wish list for further reforms to the nation’s campaign finance system.
“There are, I think, constitutional concerns with his proposal. We’ve never gone that far in proposing that … there are First Amendment issues and possibly other ones,” Boyle explained. “I guess we see … the natural next step in reform as more along the lines of presidential public financing and making sure that soft money stays banned and things like free airtime for presidential candidates.”
Along the same lines, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Capitol Hill’s Godfather of campaign finance reform initiatives, fought efforts to ban contributions from Gucci Gulch during the Senate’s last debate over campaign reform issues in March 2001.
During a debate on the Senate floor, McCain argued that while he agreed with the “intent” of an amendment offered by Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to ban contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session, he feared that such a ban might have constitutional problems, and he worried that it could threaten the rest of the McCain-Feingold bill if lawmakers were to adopt a nonseverability clause.
Lobbyists seem divided on the proposal.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea. Why not?” remarked Mike Berman, a Democratic lobbyist with the Duberstein Group. “It would save me a lot of money, and I could retire earlier.”
But Wright Andrews, former president of the American League of Lobbyists and a founding partner of Butera & Andrews, had a less favorable view of Edwards’ approach.
“If you’re going to ban contributions from lobbyists, why not ban contributions from trial lawyers?” mused Andrews, a Democrat.
Edwards, himself a wealthy trial attorney before being elected to the Senate in 1998, does not take money from lobbyists or political action committees, but has raised large amounts of campaign cash from trial lawyers.
In July, The Charlotte Observer reported that at least 56 percent of Edwards’ presidential campaign contributions this year have come from lawyers, their families or employees in their firms.
Andrews criticized Edwards proposal to ban lobbyists from giving on other grounds.
“Singling out lobbyists is ridiculous,” Andrews said, although he admitted that he knows a number of lobbyists who say they’d be “as happy as a clam” if they no longer had to make campaign contributions.
The problem, Andrews said, is that even if lobbyists are banned from making contributions, the money will still flow and it will simply flow from the clients or corporate PACs of the lobbyists.
“Campaigns are phenomenally expensive … until we can figure out a better system, we do have a situation where good government is expensive and the lobbyists are not evil,” Andrews said.
As for Edwards, Andrews said he thinks the presidential candidate is just “trying to make a media sound bite. That sounds good perhaps to the uninformed out there that don’t realize either the role of lobbyists or the way the system here in town works.”
Beyond the constitutional concerns, another Democratic lobbyist who asked not to be named called Edwards move a “campaign gimmick” and “publicity stunt” and said lobbyists were an easy target for Edwards since he wouldn’t get a lot of money from them even if he accepted it.
“Lobbyists generally aren’t big givers to presidential candidates,” the lobbyist noted, and with Edwards relinquishing his Senate seat at the end of 2004, he is even less appealing to K Street money men. “It’s a stunt. To think that banning lobbyists from writing $1,000 or $2,000 dollar checks is going to have any meaningful impact on the campaign finance system is silly.”
Edwards’ idea, however, seems to have some support at least on the state level.
At least 10 states — including North Carolina and Wisconsin — have some sort of prohibitions or ban on contributions from lobbyists to politicians during the legislative session.
In North Carolina, the ban was challenged on constitutional grounds in 1998 but was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of North Carolina Right to Life, Inc. v. Bartlett.