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Big Business Spends Big

Lobbying reports for the first six months of the year are just starting to roll in, but already the nation’s largest business lobby is likely to rank as the biggest of the big during the period.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its legal reform institute spent a whopping $30 million to lobby Congress from Jan. 1 to June 30, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed with Congress and compiled by the nonpartisan PoliticalMoneyLine. [IMGCAP(1)]

That’s a 78 percent jump over the $16.9 million the two organizations spent on lobbying in the first half of 2003 — and a tad more than the combined lobbying expenses reported by Washington heavyweights General Electric, Freddie Mac, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association and Altria Corp.

Lobbying reports show the Chamber of Commerce itself spent $20.1 million to lobby on virtually every major issue on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform spent $10 million on such issues as tort reform legislation, medical malpractice and asbestos legislation.

Lessons for Lobbyists. He’s no Lee Iacocca, but outgoing Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti has some advice for making it big in the lobbying business.

“The principles of influencing Congress have not changed,” Valenti said in an interview last week after stepping down from the lobbying job that he held for 38 years.

“You build a case that has to have merit,” Valenti said. “Then you make sure that it is composed crisply and briefly and uses vivid language that is not full of clichés. You need to be prepared to present that case orally in three or four minutes.”

Valenti said he learned from his former boss, President Lyndon Johnson, that you “ought to give the Member what the opposition is going to say.”

Finally, “don’t play it cute around the turns,” Valenti said. In other words, “don’t mislead, don’t lie — because everything leaks and you’ll be found out.”

Valenti said those four fundamental principles guided him throughout his career and helped to establish him as a lobbying icon. Valenti added that he enjoyed every second of the four decades he spent at the MPAA.

“How many other association presidents appear on the Academy Awards and get to spend their days with movie stars?” Valenti said. “If I was the head of the asparagus association, I don’t think people would care.”

Wal-Mart Money. There’s more to Wal-Mart’s yellow smiley face than just

falling prices.

For the third straight year, the company, which has 3,200 stores nationwide, has topped the Fortune 500 list, and members of the Walton family rank high on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people.

Now the company finds itself high on another list: donations in state politics.

Together, Wal-Mart stores and the Waltons personally have contributed more than $2.1 million to state-level political candidates and party committees, according to a recent study by the Institute of Money in State Politics.

In the 1998, 2000 and 2002 election cycles, the five shareholding members of the Walton family donated a total of $1.56 million to state political parties and candidates for state-level office.

While these donations spanned 16 states, three of them — California, Florida and Texas — received 85 percent of the total amount given.

All in all, only $56,000 went to Democrats, with Republicans receiving the remaining $1.4 million.

About two-thirds of the family’s contributions went to state-level candidates, three-fourths of whom were running for gubernatorial office.

The Waltons gave 98 percent of their gubernatorial contributions to Republican candidates.

Wal-Mart stores directly contributed $550,000, or about one-third as much as the Walton family, between 1998 and 2002.

The company gave a higher percentage — though still only 33 percent — to Democrats, while Republicans received the remaining 67 percent of funds.

Unlike its owners, Wal-Mart gave the majority (70 percent) of its total contributions to candidates for state legislature. Of its legislative contributions, Republicans received 54 percent and Democrats 46 percent.

As it turned out, the company chose its recipients well: Wal-Mart gave 82 percent of its donations to winning candidates.

The company has a lot of issues that are apt to be decided by legislatures and governors. In addition to the typical mix of wage and tax concerns that any big employer brings to the table, Wal-Mart has sparked special opposition among several interest groups. Smaller businesses feel they can’t compete against the retail giant; environmentalists and land-use planners oppose its allegedly sprawl-inducing “big-box” stores; and organized labor has decried the company’s labor policies.

Drinking the Kool-Aid. Hear the story last month about the cafeteria staff at Alexandria Country Day School mistakenly serving margaritas to elementary schoolers, thinking it was limeade?

It turns out that Susan Ruby Paxon, the third-grade daughter of former Reps. Bill Paxon and Susan Molinari, was one of them.

The daughter of the New York Republican Members-turned-lobbyists was sent home with a note saying that she and a few dozen of her classmates mistakenly had been served margaritas that had been left over from a faculty party a few nights earlier.

“The kids took a sip and said it was gross,” said Paxon, a lobbyist with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

Paxon, Molinari and other school parents learned about the mixup in a letter from school president Alexander Harvey on the day of the incident, Sept. 10.

“I regret to tell you that your child may have been exposed to alcohol today at lunch,” said the letter that was sent home with each of the school’s 240 students.

Susan Ruby Paxon first became famous when she was born to a sitting Congresswoman.

Despite the incident, Paxon said the school handled the matter “quickly, candidly and sensitively.”

Kara Rowland contributed to this report.