New Heat on K Street

DeLay Seeks to Return Focus to Donations

Posted February 10, 2004 at 6:25pm

Fed up with the large number of political donations that Democrats continue to receive from K Street, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is privately considering ways to pressure Republican lobbyists to contribute more of their own money to GOP campaign accounts.

After privately fuming for years, DeLay sat down with a group of his top lieutenants two weeks ago to figure out how to get GOP lobbyists to contribute the maximum $4,000 allowable to vulnerable Republican candidates, as well as giving the $25,000 limit to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“There has been a concern that not enough folks who are out there making money based on their relation to the Hill are giving enough of their own money to the Republican Party,” said one GOP aide on Capitol Hill.

Though DeLay and his allies are still in the discussion stages, any attempt to implement a plan to boost Republican contributions from K Street could represent the most daring attempt by Congressional Republicans to shake up the Washington establishment since former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) launched the infamous “K Street Project” to install Republicans in key lobbying posts downtown.

That effort landed the GOP in hot water when the House ethics panel chastised DeLay in 1998 for pressuring the Electronic Industries Alliance to hire former GOP Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) over former Oklahoma Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy.

Likewise, the latest move will surely come under scrutiny by Democrats on Capitol Hill who have signaled that they hope to score political points this year by charging Republicans with violating Congressional ethics rules.

Democrats were quick to attack DeLay when informed of his discussions.

“This is a continuation of the same bullying tactics and possibly illegal and unethical acts by Republicans,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. Beginning with alleged efforts by Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) to fire a senior Democratic lobbyist at the Investment Company Institute, the Democratic aide said, “there have been numerous examples of vindictive and illegal behavior, and the Republican leadership should think long and hard about how far they are going to take this.”

Still, many Republicans believe they have a duty to correct what they view as an imbalance in political contributions coming from K Street — and they believe the man to lead the charge is DeLay, who is fresh off a victory in his effort to force redistricting in Texas.

Although Republicans have had a lock on Congress for nearly a decade — and have occupied the White House for the past three years — many Washington lobbying firms continue to spread their political contributions fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Lobbyists at the 10 largest lobbying firms, for example, made just about half of their contributions to each party through Sept. 30, 2003, according to records gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Meanwhile, lobbyists at the five largest shops sent nearly 60 percent of their political money to Democrats.

“We are this many years into a Republican majority and if you look at the giving of many shops, they are still slanted to Democrats,” said one Republican lobbyist who has spoken to DeLay about the issue. “You would expect contributions to change to reflect the new majority, but it’s been a slow change.”

After quietly tracking political contributions from lobbyists for years, DeLay and a half-dozen of his most trusted allies huddled privately two weeks ago to talk for the first time about how to squeeze more money out of K Street.

At a dinner hosted by GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff a few blocks from the Capitol at Signatures — a Republican hot spot that features a drink called “The Lobbyist” — DeLay chewed over the topic with a group of lobbyists that included his own former chief of staff, a one-time top aide to Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and a trusted adviser to Hastert.

Those involved say DeLay is only one of the members of the Republican leadership who are concerned about the large amount of K Street contributions that go to Democrats.

“There is a real effort by a lot of people other than DeLay to get people to step up to the plate and do what they should be doing,” said one lobbyist close to DeLay. “It’s not an organized effort, but it’s a subject of conversation.”

DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella added: “A diagnosis has been made but not yet a prescription.”

Those who attended the dinner included Susan Hirschmann of Williams & Jensen, Gregg Hartley of Cassidy & Associates, Dan Mattoon of Podesta Mattoon, and Abramoff, a lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig LLC. Paxon, now a lobbyist with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP, was invited but did not attend the session.

The concern of those who attended DeLay’s dinner is shared by Republicans across town.

“There are a whole bunch of lobbyists who run around town and say they are Republican lobbyists because they used to work for Senator so-and-so. Those are their credentials. Credentials need to be watered. Credentials need to be replenished,” said GOP activist Grover Norquist, who first started tracking donations from lobbyists two years ago. “Republican lobbyists need to make significant contributions to the Republican Party.”

Though DeLay and other Republicans have not settled on a game plan for turning up the heat on K Street, several Republicans on Capitol Hill say they already keep close tabs on political contributions from lobbyists.

“Everybody in Republican leadership has opportunities to see who is giving what and to match that up with what lobbyists are doing on the Hill,” said one former House aide. “When I was one the Hill I was cognizant of who was giving money and who wasn’t in the lobbying community. It was pretty easy to tell who is coming to fundraisers and who is not and what kind of checks they are giving.”

By closely tracking contributions from lobbyists, their firms and their corporate clients, House Republicans believe they can collect millions of additional hard dollars for Congressional elections this fall and beyond.

“We’d always been good at looking for those niches — people who had not maxed out,” said one DeLay ally involved in the latest discussions. “Now, we want to be more like a vacuum cleaner.”