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The Federal Election Commission put off until next month its decision on whether to permit trade associations to automatically collect contributions through payroll deductions from employees of member companies. [IMGCAP(1)]

The rulemaking will now be considered in mid-July.

The ability to use electronic funds transfers to raise money for political action committees has been long sought by trade associations, and many campaign finance experts believe that the ability would dramatically increase the amount of money these groups take in from employees of member companies.

Corporate and union PACs already exercise this ability within their own organizations. One of the questions the FEC discussed in the hearing Thursday was whether the corporation’s participation in the program was an “incidental” cost or constituted “facilitating” contributions. Commissioner Ellen Weintraub (D) wondered whether the trade association having access to money straight from the employee’s paycheck would fall under the latter category, and if so, whether the FEC would be consistent with the law and its other regulations in allowing it.

The majority of the commission seemed to lean in the other direction, however, and most if not all of the other five commissioners seem willing to tackle the issue one way or another. The question is whether they will be able to find a consensus on a sticking point regarding labor PACs.

Under the draft proposal, companies that provide trade associations access to payroll deductions would have to provide similar access for union PACs.

FEC Chairman Scott Thomas (D) put forth an alternate proposal, however, which would give unions access to payroll deductions for employees who work in any of the corporation’s affiliates, subsidiaries, branches or divisions.

Under Thomas’ proposal, if one company within a larger corporation offered payroll deduction services to a trade association PAC, the parent corporation would have to make the same services available to any labor organization that represented employees anywhere within the corporation.

Republican Commissioner Brad Smith, who requested more time to study Thomas’ proposal, commented that the idea didn’t make sense to him, as in his view it would allow unions disproportionate access to a corporation’s employees. Under his reasoning, the trade association would solicit funds from the employees of one company or subsidiary of the corporation, and then the labor union would have access to electronic funds transfers from all employees of the larger corporation, even those of companies whose businesses were dramatically different.

Thomas countered that the law requires unions to pay the corporation to use the payroll deduction services, whereas the trade associations would not.

The Democrats on the commission seem to be leaning toward Thomas’ approach, while the Republicans are largely against it. In order to institute the rule, at least one commissioner would have to vote with the other side. Weintraub likely has taken herself out of the equation entirely, so a compromise would need to be reached among the remaining five commissioners in order for the rule to be enacted in some form.

High Cuisine. A roomful of (mostly) interns, clearly jonesing for free munchies, packed into the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday to celebrate a recently introduced bill. The food they were served included ingredients derived from hemp — which, not coincidentally, was the subject of the bill being fêted.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), would allow states to decide whether they want to permit the cultivation of industrial hemp, which, its backers strenuously argue, should not be confused with its botanical sibling, marijuana.

Paul, one of Congress’ fiercest libertarians, told the crowd that he approaches the hemp issue from a “pro-liberty” and states-rights perspective. “We have an epidemic of trashing the Constitution on the House floor on a daily basis,” he said. By contrast, the Industrial Hemp Farming Act would be a step toward freedom, he said.

Paul suggested that those in the audience lobby Congressional leadership to take up the cause. “Just mock them,” he said. “That little bit of pressure can make a difference.”

The menu, created by Chef Denis Cicero of the Galaxy Global Eatery in New York City, included nutritious salads with hemp dressing, Bahama hempnut-crusted wild salmon and tempura hemp tofu steaks. The dessert, a hempnut-crusted key lime pie, hadn’t shown up by 1:45 p.m., by which time most of the interns and other guests had already scuttled back to their offices.

Attendees also received products with hemp oil, including Dr. Bronner’s and Sun Dog’s Magic organic balm “for dry/chapped skin or tattoos.”

When Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970 banning industrial hemp, Paul said, “Did they make a mistake? Are they idiots?”

Speaking at the event, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp and commended Paul for introducing the bill. Paul, he said, “is trying to deliver us from medievalism.”

“Look at these student interns,” he continued. “I hope you will become leaders” in this issue going forward.

Nader added, “Hemp food is pretty delicious.”

Project Makeover. Three months after hiring its first ever full-time staffer, the K Street Project, run by Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, has launched a new Web site chronicling the many job changes in the lobby corridor.

Dating back to the late 1990s, the K Street Project was designed as a way for Republican activists to fill plum jobs on K Street with loyal Republicans.

But K Street Project manager Sarah Smith said that despite long-circulated rumors about the project’s pro-Republican bent, she decided to “start with a clean slate,” making the site more nonpartisan in its new incarnation.

“They hired me to revamp it, to give it a new face and make it relevant again,” Smith said. “It had a reputation before I came here, but I just look forward to the future.”

Smith said she decided to make the site “a nonpartisan research of people’s employment backgrounds, political giving history and also the PAC giving of industries, trade associations, nonprofits and corporations.”

In other words, it’s just pure facts, no analysis, said Smith, who, like Norquist, got her start in College Republican circles.

Much of the information has appeared in Washington publications and is gleaned from the Federal Election Commission and groups such as the Center for Responsive Politics, she said.

The project’s site also has a job-posting compilation that is open to Democrats and Republicans, Smith said.

Watching the LobbyWatchers. The Center for Public Integrity has posted a warning to users of its recently launched LobbyWatch database tracking lobbying expenses: The numbers may not be entirely accurate.

The note was posted Thursday, in anticipation of a National Journal story on Friday that detailed potential errors in the methodology used to construct the database.

For one thing, the magazine noted, the center often double-counts lobbying revenues, in some instances significantly inflating amounts spent by industries to influence the federal government.

In the online note, Bill Allison, the center’s political director, defends the method that leads to some mistakes, saying it is based on a reasonable assumption.

“So,” he writes, “as we update LobbyWatch — a project that we have always considered to be an evolving, improving, work in progress — with complete 2004 totals, we are also updating our methodology.

K Street Moves. The Information Technology Industry Council has promoted two of its lobbyists. Josh Ackil is now vice president for government relations and will handle Democratic outreach, while Ann Rollins has taken over the role of vice president for trade and technology policy. … Carol Melton is leaving Viacom’s Washington office after eight years as executive vice president to join Time Warner’s team as executive vice president for global public policy.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.

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