Staffers Join Money Chase

Fundraisers Tout Opportunity to Schmooze Aides

Posted July 11, 2008 at 6:32pm

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), her top staffer, a dozen Democratic challengers and scores of lobbyists gather later this month on the roof of the Jones Day Building at the foot of Capitol Hill, it will mark the second time in as many months that lobbyists have opened their wallets at the request of a senior Democratic staffer.

While Pelosi will undoubtedly cut the most famous figure on the seventh floor that night, her chief of staff, John Lawrence, is chairing the event. He receives top billing on the invitation, which was sent downtown this week from his e-mail address at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The fundraiser, for which lobbyists are asked to write personal checks worth $100 or $250, comes on the heels of another event that featured access to senior House Democratic aides as its primary draw.

On June 12, lobbyists willing to cough up $1,000 each for the DCCC filed into the Hotel Monaco downtown for a sit-down dinner shoulder-to-shoulder with leadership staffers and committee staff directors. That event, chaired by Yelberton Watkins, chief of staff to Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), pulled in nearly $250,000 for the party committee.

These events are not unique. On June 23, lobbyists and Senate chiefs of staff gathered at the Mott House, the headquarters of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for an event to benefit the DSCC. Senate Democratic chiefs have staged similar events on a semi-regular basis in recent years, participants said.

And last December, House Democratic staff directors and chiefs of staff helped round up paying guests for a DCCC event at the Hotel Monaco.

Republicans, likewise, have been offering up staffers as fundraising bait. Last year, the National Republican Senatorial Committee staged an event at Union Station featuring chiefs of staff. They reprised it this spring, with an event on the roof of the office building at 101 Constitution Ave. NW.

Defenders of the practice note that chiefs of staff, at least, frequently carry a political portfolio on top of their policy duties. Top staffers for lawmakers of both parties are often on the campaign payroll and play an important year-round role helping their bosses fill their campaign coffers.

“These types of fundraisers are completely appropriate, and we appreciate everything senior staff does to strengthen and expand the majority,” DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said. “Staffers represent their bosses’ views in their official capacity extremely well. These are off-time, volunteer activities,” she said, adding that participating staffers are “committed to strengthening the Democratic majority.” Representatives for the NRSC and DSCC did not respond to requests for comment.

Others, including some lobbyists who attended last month’s DCCC fundraiser, said such events can put both solicitors and donors in an uncomfortable position. They ask professionals who are usually careful to keep their daytime conversations limited to legislative matters to engage over the give-and-take of campaign money.

“It did seem a little odd,” said one lobbyist who went to the DCCC event last month. Added another, “I have mixed feelings about it, but it works. It’s totally legal, but it probably pushes the envelope a little bit.”

A Republican lobbyist, who attended the NRSC event earlier this year, called the practice a “gray area.”

“It’s a little uncomfortable. Obviously there needs to be some separation between the money side of politics and the policy side of politics. That’s easy enough for Members of Congress because they’re also candidates. That dance gets a little more diffuse at the staff level,” he said. “But if both sides are doing it — it’s mutually assured destruction.”

Campaign finance reform advocates said the arrangements helped make the argument for the necessity of public financing of elections.

“This appears to be yet another variation of how the lobbyist, special interest PAC-money system works in Washington. And it’s another reminder of why it is essential to fundamentally reform the way Congressional elections are financed,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

Watkins said he took pains to ensure the Hotel Monaco event did not place attendees in a compromising spot. He stayed away from soliciting corporate political action committee funds, accepting only personal checks instead. And rather than asking staffers to help press people to come and contribute, he said he handled the bulk of the phone work himself and with Michael Hacker, another Clyburn aide. He said they simply asked staffers interested in attending to show up at the event.

“There’s a lot of excitement across the city, and across the region, for Democrats. And as a Democrat, I was happy to make an effort toward retaining our Democratic majority,” said Watkins, who himself cut a $1,000 personal check at the event. “We’re not elected officials, but staffers have been involved in fundraisers as long as I can remember.”

There were a few Members of Congress on hand that night, including Clyburn and Reps. Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and André Carson (Ind.).

But for the “who’s who of Democratic lobbying insiders” in attendance, as one lobbyist there put it, the main attractions were the powers behind the throne. Lawrence was there, as was Terry Lierman, chief of staff to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). So were a number of staff directors for key committees, including Janice Mays of Ways and Means, Tom Kahn of Budget, and Dennis Fitzgibbons of Energy and Commerce.

Another lobbyist there said the success of the event points to an irony in the lobbying reform laws Democrats enacted. By restricting opportunities for lobbyists to mingle with staff, the law puts a premium on these types of fundraisers. “If you want to socialize in a bright-line, allowable way, this is a bright-line, allowable way,” he said.