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These Democrats Swore Off PACs. But Corporate Lobbyists Have a Plan

K Street tries some workarounds to reach the 32 incoming lawmakers who said ‘no’ to corporate cash

Abigail Spanberger is one of 32 incoming new members who refused to accept corporate PAC money. Lobbyists think they can reach these lawmakers in other ways. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Abigail Spanberger is one of 32 incoming new members who refused to accept corporate PAC money. Lobbyists think they can reach these lawmakers in other ways. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The anti-PAC class cometh, but K Street has a backup plan.

Lobbyists for business interests say they’re implementing workarounds to get to know the 32 incoming freshman Democratic House members who have sworn off corporate political action committee dollars.

Those newbies, in town this week for member orientation, comprise the majority of what will be a total of 45 representatives and senators in the 116th Congress who have pledged to reject donations from business PACs.

Instead of PAC dollars, corporate interests plan to rely on individual personal donations from their executives, lobbyists and other consultants, instead of the collective contributions from corporate PACs. In addition, lobbyists will be sure to attend meet-and-greets happening over the coming days and weeks with the new members.

Some lobbyists said they also would rely on policy partnerships with think tanks, grassroots activist organizations and charities — as well as shopping op-eds focused on specific lawmakers — for entree to the newly-elected members of Congress.

“It does put a premium on personal contributions, even from a corporate lobbyist perspective,” said Michael Williams, a former Democratic Capitol Hill aide who runs the Williams Group and is a partner in another lobbying enterprise called United By Interest.

The incoming lawmakers who have sworn off donations from corporate PACs, such as Democrats Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, typically don’t reject donations from individual corporate executives and lobbyists, just not collectively from their corporate PACs.

Additionally, lawmakers who do accept corporate PAC money are hosting numerous receptions for their own donors this week to mingle with the incoming class of lawmakers.

“All the senior members and leadership are doing these meet-and-greets,” Williams said, noting that campaign cash is often an overrated path to connecting with lawmakers. Williams specifically mentioned Democratic Rep. James E. Clyburn as hosting such an event this week at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; his own donors are invited, too.

Mobilizing people in a new member’s district is also a pathway to getting face time. New lawmakers frequently meet with representatives of major employers and interest groups from their districts, and that is a pipeline for getting a point of view across.

“For this incoming class, first and foremost, they’re going to want to deliver results,” said Arshi Siddiqui, a partner in the lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “For the business community, the best way to create and cultivate lasting relationships is to help make the connection between policy in Washington and their districts back home.”

Offering policy guidance and helping build support for those lawmakers’ legislative priorities are also among the ways to meet new members, she added.

Plenty of pledges

The no-PAC-money pledges skyrocketed during the 2017-2018 midterm election cycle with more than 100 candidates for Congress in the general election eschewing such dollars, according to the group End Citizens United, which advocates for a campaign finance overhaul. Anne Feldman, a spokeswoman for the group, said she expects these lawmakers to stick with their campaign pledges.

“They ran on this, and they used it in their ads,” Feldman said.

She expects the pressure to build on incumbents, as well as those running for the White House, during the 2020 election cycle. “We expect to see candidates running for all offices in 2020 to continue to make this commitment,” she said.

Still, even as the group has prodded candidates to take no-PAC-money pledges, it hasn’t made it a litmus test. Notably, End Citizens United endorsed Nancy Pelosi for House speaker in the 116th Congress, even though she has reported receiving about 41 percent of her career donations from PACs, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Feldman said her group endorsed Pelosi because she has said she would make campaign finance and voting overhauls a top priority in the new Congress.

The rise of the no-PAC pledges is a sign of the growing toxicity of corporate campaign money. Understanding that, corporate PACs are launching a campaign to publicize where their money comes from and that it is disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.

Geoff Ziebart, executive director of the National Association of Business Political Action Committees, said in early October that his organization was planning to step up its congressional outreach to the next Congress and issued a statement after the Nov. 6 elections defending his member PACs.

Corporate PAC money comes from the voluntary donations of individual executives and employees of the company, not from corporate treasury money.

Still, corporate PACs have less buying power now than in the past. The $5,000 per candidate donation limits for corporate PACs in each election remain unchanged since 1974, even as other limits, including those for individual contributions and donations to party committees, have increased and were indexed for inflation in the McCain-Feingold overhaul of 2002.

“These organizations employ and represent, as members, millions of hard-working American citizens, who voluntarily contribute a small percentage of their after-tax income to support their company’s or trade association’s PAC,” Ziebart said in the statement. “Employees and association members choose to participate in PACs because they want their collective voices heard on the public policy issues that face their industry.”

Democratic lobbyist and donor Steve Elmendorf of the firm Subject Matter says campaign contributions are overrated but said corporate PACs give money “in a very transparent way” and diminishing them from the fundraising scene is likely to make the system more opaque.

CR Wooters, a lobbyist at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas and a former Democratic congressional aide, says corporate clients and the incoming lawmakers will have much to discuss on policy issues, including proposals on paid leave or increasing the federal minimum wage — and PACs aren’t a necessary conduit to those talks.

“Those could be very productive conversations,” Wooters said, as lobbyists educate new members about issues they may never have encountered before. “Businesses can also spend a lot of time educating new members on trade and tariffs, or maybe you have no idea what cybersecurity is. Now you’re having to deal with giant issues like health care and education.”

“The old way of saying, ‘We’ll write them a check’ just feels lazy and dated to me,” Wooters said.

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