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Wall Street Journal: The Super PAC Lesson

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Thoughts on campaign spending from the Wall Street Journal.  There was not enough of it for their tastes.

Apparently Mitt was “defenseless” against Obama’s ads.

Wall Street Journal

In every election there are issues that take up an inordinate amount of media attention but turn out to be sideshows. This year’s champion is Super PAC spending. Liberals first claimed that the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors were “buying” the election, but now that Democrats have won they are claiming that these GOP donors were gullible fools for giving at all. They’re wrong on both counts.

Money did matter, as it always does to some extent. But the cash that really counted was the more than $100 million that the Obama campaign used from May through July in the battleground states to portray Mitt Romney as Gordon Gekko without the social conscience. The Election Day exit polls show that Mr. Romney’s image never recovered from that ad barrage. He ran largely a biographical campaign and the Obama campaign destroyed his business biography. His net favorability was negative.

Mr. Romney’s advisers told us in early August that they would have liked to respond to the attacks but lacked the cash to do that and at the same time to portray a positive message after they had run through all of their money during the primary. They went with the positive message, albeit one that didn’t make much of an impact.

By the way, this is also the early-advertising strategy that Bill Clinton and adviser Dick Morris used to destroy Bob Dole in 1996. You’d think Republican strategists would have remembered that.

The GOP Super PACs tried to fill the gap by attacking Mr. Obama, but they were hard pressed to speak for a candidate whom by law they are prohibited from coordinating with. Perhaps their ads could have been more effective, and perhaps some of that money would have been better spent on matching Democratic voter turnout operations. Those questions deserve to be part of a GOP self-examination. But it’s hard to believe that Mr. Romney would have done any better if the Super PACs hadn’t existed.

All of which suggests that the real problem this year wasn’t too much campaign spending but too little. The GOP lacked the cash to counter the attack ads when its candidate really needed it. Mr. Romney raised enough money after the conventions, but by then it was too late to expand the field of competition other than with a late sneak attack of the kind the campaign tried in Pennsylvania.

In focusing so much on rich GOP donors, the media also underplayed the way the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision helped Democrats. That ruling overturned longstanding rules that prohibited unions from using dues money to communicate politically with non-union members. This allowed unions to run more efficient voter-targeting operations, since they didn’t have to skip non-union households, and it contributed to voter turnout in places like Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio.

The unions were also helped by the many White House and campaign officials whom Mr. Obama dispatched to fund-raise for Democratic Super PACs—when he wasn’t busy criticizing GOP spending.

The history of campaign-finance limits is that attention to the issue recedes when Democrats win. But expect it to return in time for the 2014 campaign cycle, when the media will find some new Sheldon Adelson to portray as a threat to democracy even as unions go on spending their cash below the radar.

A far better reform would remove all donation limits to candidates, so nominees like Mr. Romney of either party aren’t left defenseless again. The Super PACs would fade in importance and the candidates would get to better control their own message. The U.S. is a huge country and it takes lots of money to educate voters.

Washington Post: Vendors finesse law barring ‘coordination’ by campaigns, independent groups

Sunday, October 14th, 2012

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and American Crossroads, an allied interest group, are barred by federal law from working together on political advertising.

But it’s perfectly legal for them to hire the same company to run Internet ads. That company uses some of the same employees to represent the two clients, and the same databases to store information on people it will target with ads.

Washington Post

By all accounts, Romney’s campaign and the group spending millions of dollars on his behalf are not violating the law that prohibits campaigns and independent organizations from coordinating their efforts.

The law was meant to separate campaigns from outside groups with wealthy donors — the theory being that large political contributions could have a corrupting influence on candidates.

But it is a fuzzy line that separates the campaigns from groups such as Crossroads and the super PACs that have sprung up in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed unrestricted corporate spending on campaigns. And the 2012 campaign, with its surge in spending from independent groups, offers many examples of how little the law actually prohibits when it comes to “coordination.”

The major super PACs helping President Obama and Romney, for example, were formed by men who previously worked as aides to the candidates.

And at least 30 political consulting companies have been hired by both a campaign or party and an independent group, according to campaign disclosure reports. The consultants provide a range of services, from polling to legal advice to media consulting.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee shares 10 vendors with the major super PAC helping Democrats win House races, the House Majority PAC. The super PAC, for example, paid $31,000 to Ralston Lapp Media to produce television ads, while the DCCC paid $173,000 for the same purpose. Nine Democratic congressional candidates also hired the company.

Contributions to candidates are capped at $2,500 for each election, but for many types of interest groups, there are no restrictions on donations. In order to prevent the groups from becoming de facto extensions of the campaigns, they are prohibited from spending money at the request of candidates or using inside knowledge of their strategies or wishes. But hiring a firm that works for both sides is legal as long as information is not shared.

Advocates for tighter restrictions on political money say the weakness of the law has allowed interest groups to essentially become another arm of the campaigns.

“The real scandal in 2012 is what’s legal,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the Campaign Legal Center, which supports tightening campaign finance laws. “Certainly the law does not prevent coordination in the way that word is generally understood by the public.”

Over the past decade, more than 30 complaints of alleged coordination in federal races have been brought to the Federal Election Commission. But the complaints rarely prompt investigations because of the difficulty of collecting private communications that might prove coordination.

The high-tech realm of online ad targeting offers a new example of how tightly integrated campaigns and interest groups can become.

Romney’s campaign has bought $21 million in online advertising through an Alexandria-based ad agency called Targeted Victory, the same firm hired by American Crossroads to run $1 million in ads. The company spends most of that money buying space on the Web through ad networks.

The company also works for the Republican Party, prominent Republican House and Senate candidates, and interest groups active in congressional races, including the American Action Network, Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, which is affiliated with American Crossroads.

Targeted Victory uses Internet video ads to persuade people to oppose Obama and vote for Romney. It also uses a stockpile of data it has collected on Web users to reach them with ads for both Romney and Crossroads.

Separately, Targeted Victory keeps a record of those who have visited the Romney campaign Web site or the Crossroads site, and stores that information in the same location.

Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the campaign’s vendors “understand the law and follow it.”

Targeted Victory’s chief executive, Michael Beach, said in an e-mailed statement that the company has separate teams of strategists for the two clients, crafting ad messages and finding potential voters online. Those teams work on opposite sides of a “firewall” described in FEC regulations, he said.

“Targeted Victory takes its compliance responsibilities seriously and continually reviews its operations to ensure compliance with the FEC rules,” Beach wrote.

He said the rules allow some employees to work for both Romney and Crossroads, including “personnel who merely forward the Internet ad buys to placement firms.”

FEC regulations specifically point to those working on “the selection or purchasing of advertising slots” as employees with the potential to share inside information that could be used for coordination.

A look at the same custom-built software running on the Romney and Crossroads Web sites shows the tight links between the organizations. When people visit the Romney or Crossroads site, their browsers download software written by Targeted Victory.

The code creates a trigger so that when users press a “donate” button, for example, their browsers report that information, which is kept in a database that commingles Romney and Crossroads users.

When users move on to a site with ads, that starts another chain reaction of code, transmitting the Romney and Crossroads information to ad networks, which may then display Romney or Crossroads ads.

Storing data together and using the same employees to represent Romney and Crossroads is not coordination under the law. To break the rule, an interest group would have to use inside information on the candidate’s needs or wishes to shape its own ad campaign.

Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works for prominent liberal super PACs, said he uses a password-protected computer system to keep sensitive materials from his colleagues who might work directly for candidates or the official party committees. He praised the value of the rules as one of the only defenses keeping the work of candidates and well-funded interest groups separate.

“It seems we have a Swiss-cheese system here,” Garin said. “No offense to Swiss cheese.”

Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

© The Washington Post Company

MapLight, the Political Money Tracker, Launches Politicash 2012 App for the Presidential Election

Sunday, September 30th, 2012

Our friends at Maplight have a really great app for tracking the money flowing in this year’s election campaigns.

Maplight

MapLight, the Political Money Tracker, Launches Politicash 2012 App for the Presidential Election

Free Mobile App Gives Users Immediate Access to Who’s Funding Presidential Candidate and Affiliated Super PAC Campaigns

Sept. 25, 2012–MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization that reveals money’s influence on politics, announces the launch of its new mobile app, Politicash 2012. The app, freely available for iOS and Android, tracks money flowing into the presidential race, making it easier than ever to know exactly who’s funding the candidates, including the shadowy money going into the campaigns of their affiliated super PACs. An auto-tweet feature alerts candidates that users are keeping tabs on their fundraising. Politicash 2012 is updated regularly with the most recent data from the Federal Elections Commission (FEC).

“With millions of dollars flowing into the presidential race, Politicash 2012 makes it easier than ever to track the biggest donors and hold our candidates accountable, all from the palm of your hand,” said Daniel G. Newman, MapLight’s co-founder and president.

The app’s features include:

  • Head to head comparison of total contributions to Obama and Romney, including a fundraising breakdown by super PAC versus campaign committee
  • Graphs tracking money raised and spent by each candidate over time
  • The top 5 contributors overall
  • Biggest contributors of the latest week of available records from the FEC
  • A “Shake” feature, showing a random sample of company, individual, and PAC contributors to each candidate

Download Politicash 2012 today for iOS and Android.

Politicash 2012 launches in partnership with the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Global Exchange, the Participatory Politics Foundation, Public Campaign, Rock the Vote, and Rootstrikers.

Los Angeles Times: After winning right to spend, political groups fight for secrecy

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Conservatives who said disclosure of donors would prevent corruption now are attacking such rules, citing fears of harassment

Los Angeles Times

During their long campaign to loosen rules on campaign money, conservatives argued that there was a simpler way to prevent corruption: transparency. Get rid of limits on contributions and spending, they said, but make sure voters know where the money is coming from.

Today, with those fundraising restrictions largely removed, many conservatives have changed their tune. They now say disclosure could be an enemy of free speech.

High-profile donors could face bullying and harassment from liberals out to “muzzle” their opponents, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a recent speech.

Corporations could be subject to boycotts and pickets, warned the Wall Street Journal editorial page this spring.

Democrats “want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts,” said Republican strategist Karl Rove on Fox News. “I think it’s shameful.”

Rove helped found American Crossroads, a “super PAC,” and Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group that does not reveal its donors.

“Disclosure is the one area where [conservatives] haven’t won,” said Richard Briffault, an election law professor at Columbia Law School. “This is the next frontier for them.”

A handful of conservative foundations, themselves financed with millions in anonymous funding, have been fighting legal battles from Maine to Hawaii to dismantle disclosure rules and other limits on campaign spending.

One group, the Center for Individual Freedom based in Alexandria, Va., has spent millions on attack ads against Democratic congressmen and state judicial candidates. It also has sued to block laws and court rulings that would have required disclosure of the source of the money for the ads.

Jeffrey Mazzella, the center’s president, declined to comment on the lawsuits or discuss the group’s donors, saying the center lays out its positions in detail on its website and in news releases.

Bradley A. Smith, a Republican and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is among those whose views have changed on disclosure. In 2003, he endorsed disclosing donors as a way to discourage corruption by “exposing potential or actual conflicts of interest.”

But later, he said, he concluded that disclosure requirements could be burdensome for citizen groups. And now that campaign reports are posted online, he added, people can easily identify and target their opponents.

The business community began fighting disclosure in 2000, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, after buying ads supporting candidates for the Mississippi Supreme Court, successfully challenged the state’s requirements on revealing donors.

The anti-disclosure campaign was joined by libertarian legal advocacy centers, such as the Institute for Justice, founded in 1991 with seed money from trusts controlled by billionaire brothers Charles andDavid H. Koch. Starting in 2005, the institute began sponsoring studies that argued disclosure laws were ensnaring ordinary citizens in red tape and inviting reprisals.

Then came California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. After the initiative passed in 2008, some same-sex marriage advocates used the state’s campaign finance data to publicly identify donors who supported the ban. Proposition 8 supporters claimed they were subject to harassing phone calls and e-mails, vandalism and protests.

In arguing against disclosure rules, conservatives even reach back to the civil rights era, when authorities in Alabama tried to identify members of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1958, the Supreme Court ruled those names could remain secret.

A leader of the crusade against disclosure has been James Bopp Jr., a libertarian lawyer based in Terre Haute, Ind. The original lawyer in the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court eased restrictions on independent political spending, he has brought suits to attack campaign rules in at least 30 states. In one of those suits, the Supreme Court on Monday ruled in Bopp’s favor and eliminated a Montana ban on corporate contributions.

Bopp and others say there’s nothing wrong with forcing candidates and political parties to reveal their donors, at least the larger ones. But for private citizens and independent groups, “the price of disclosure is too high,” he said.

So far, the anti-disclosure arguments haven’t won much support on the Supreme Court.

Starting with a key decision in 1976, the court has stood behind the principle that such rules help prevent corruption and keep voters informed. In the 2010 Citizens United case, an 8-1 majority affirmed disclosure rules. And later that year, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was even more forceful in backing transparency.

New York Times: Loose Border of ‘Super PAC’ and Campaign

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

The fantasy that candidates and their campaigns are not effectively coordinating with SuperPACs should be very clear from this NY Times report.

Both parties are spending record amounts of money, from disclosed and undisclosed donors as they hide behind an impotent Federal Elections Commission.

New York Times

When Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign needs advice on direct mail strategies for reaching voters, it looks to TargetPoint Consulting. And when the independent “super PAC” supporting him needs voter research, it, too, goes to TargetPoint.

Sharing a consultant would seem to be an embodiment of coordination between a candidate and an independent group, something prohibited under federal law. But TargetPoint is just one of a handful of interconnected firms in the same office suite in Alexandria, Va., working for either the Romney campaign or the super PAC Restore Our Future.

Elsewhere in the same suite is WWP Strategies, whose co-founder is married to TargetPoint’s chief executive and works for the Romney campaign. Across the conference room is the Black Rock Group, whose co-founder — a top Romney campaign official in 2008 — now helps run both Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, another independent group that spoke up in defense of Mr. Romney’s candidacy in January. Finally, there is Crossroads Media, a media placement firm that works for American Crossroads and other Republican groups.

The overlapping roles and relationships of the consultants in Suite 555 at 66 Canal Center Plaza offer a case study in the fluidity and ineffectual enforcement of rules intended to prevent candidates from coordinating their activities with outside groups. And there has been a rising debate over the ascendancy of super PACs, which operate free of the contribution limits imposed on the candidates but are supposed to remain independent of them.

In practice, super PACs have become a way for candidates to bypass the limits by steering rich donors to these ostensibly independent groups, which function almost as adjuncts of the campaigns.

While insisting that the tangle of connections does not violate any laws, Alexander Gage, TargetPoint’s founder, said he understood how it could look “ridiculous.” His own firm had taken steps, he said, to prevent improprieties, including erecting “a fire wall” separating employees who work for the Romney campaign and the super PAC.

“We go to great lengths to make sure that we meet all legal requirements,” he said. “I have removed myself personally from working on either Restore Our Future or Romney stuff because of this sort of potential conflict of interest.”

The prohibition against candidates working in concert with independent political committees has its roots in Watergate-era reforms intended to prevent large donors from gaining improper influence over elected officials. But it has taken on added significance in the wake of recent court decisions that opened the spigot for unlimited contributions to the independent groups.

Super PACs have collected more than $100 million so far, much of it from a relatively small collection of well-heeled individuals or companies who are free to give millions to these outside groups but no more than a few thousand dollars to a candidate’s own committees. Those unlimited contributions are fueling a barrage of negative advertising in the Republican primaries.

But while the Federal Election Commission has established elaborate, though narrow, guidelines for determining whether the creation of a specific campaign advertisement violates the coordination ban, it has not focused on other kinds of activities between all PACs and candidates. Rules the commission adopted in 2003, still on the books, allow for regulation of this gray area, but they have been largely ignored.

“Most of the focus so far has been on the ads, but there may be a lot of other activity that is being coordinated between the campaigns and the super PACs that could be seen as resulting in a benefit to the campaign,” said Lawrence M. Noble, a campaign-finance lawyer at Skadden, Arps and a former general counsel for the election commission.

The regulations on coordination include a general prohibition on expenditures “made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion” of candidates and their representatives. The commission’s records show that when devising this rule, it turned aside pleas from political groups to limit enforcement only to ads, saying such a narrow focus was not what Congress intended.

Nine years later, however, there is little evidence that the commission has followed through on this intent.

The commission, made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, has long been divided along partisan lines on how far to go in enforcing rules on coordinated expenditures, often resulting in paralysis.

Last fall, the commission was asked by American Crossroads if it could broadcast certain ads, “fully coordinated” with a candidate, who would be consulted about the script and appear in the advertisement. The group argued that it would not be improper as long as the ad ran outside of a time window established by the commission for “electioneering communications.”

The commission deadlocked and could reach no conclusion.

“The campaigns know the F.E.C. isn’t going to enforce the law, and so they’ve decided to do whatever they want,” said Fred Wertheimer, whose watchdog group, Democracy 21, has complained to the Justice Department about the lack of enforcement. “What is going on is just absurd.”

The commission declined to comment for this article.

From the start, there has been no doubt that the super PACs are closely entwined with the candidates they support.

Priorities USA Action, which supports President Obama, was formed by two former White House aides, and Obama administration officials are helping it raise money. A former top aide to Newt Gingrich helps run a pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future. And Foster S. Friess, a major donor to Rick Santorum’s super PAC, often travels with the candidate.Mr. Romney has often blurred the distinction between his campaign and Restore Our Future. Last summer, discussing a large donation to the super PAC by one of his former business partners, Mr. Romney characterized it as a donation to himself. He appeared at a fund-raiser for Restore Our Future and has publicly encouraged people to donate to it.

Campaign spending reports filed by both the super PAC and the Romney campaign shed additional light on just how closely interconnected the two entities are.

Restore Our Future, for example, has paid TargetPoint Consulting nearly $350,000 for survey research. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign has paid TargetPoint nearly $200,000 for direct mail consulting. In one instance, the campaign and the super PAC paid TargetPoint on the same day.

Mr. Gage, a senior strategist in Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign, is married to Katie Packer Gage, a deputy campaign manager of the current Romney campaign. The campaign has paid her firm, WWP Strategies, nearly $250,000 for strategy consulting.

Both of their companies share an office suite with the Black Rock Group, a political consulting firm co-founded by Carl Forti, who worked as political director for Mr. Romney’s 2008 campaign and helps direct Restore Our Future. The super PAC has paid Black Rock about $21,000 for communications consulting.

Mr. Forti declined to comment. Mr. Gage said that his firm had a separate work space from Black Rock, divided by a conference room. “It’s not like we’re a commingled office,” he said.

His wife’s office for WWP Strategies is in the same area as TargetPoint’s, he said, but she has been working out of the Romney headquarters in Boston for the most part. Mr. Gage said they do not discuss the campaign.

Gail Gitcho, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign, said the campaign followed both the letter and the spirit of the law on coordination.

“We know the law,” she said, “and we abide by it scrupulously.”

The spending reports suggest that the Romney campaign and the super PAC, if not coordinating, have been closely following each other’s fund-raising events, though Ms. Gitcho emphasized that no joint fund-raisers had been held.

Last summer, the super PAC and the Romney campaign employed Creative Edge Parties, a New York catering company, and each sent it a payment on the same day: the super PAC gave a check for $1,676 for a “fund-raising event,” while the Romney campaign sent $1,584 for “facility rental/catering services.”

On another occasion, Restore Our Future paid $1,500 as a fund-raising expense to the Waldorf Astoria in New York, where the Romney campaign held a fund-raiser in December. Around the same time, the Romney campaign paid the Waldorf $19,000 for “facility rental/catering services” and lodging.

And in mid-July, Restore Our Future wrote two checks to Sandie Tillotson, a cosmetics executive and a friend of Mr. Romney, reimbursing her for “event costs,” which appear to be associated with a fund-raiser held in her apartment on the top floor of the north tower of the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. Several weeks later, the Romney campaign also sent a check to the residential board of Ms. Tillotson’s building, which is home as well to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, for “facility rental/catering services.” (The campaign had a fund-raiser at the hotel on July 19.)

The overlapping connections of American Crossroads, the independent group tied to Karl Rove, with the Alexandria office suite are likely to draw more scrutiny in the general election, should Mr. Romney win the nomination. Mr. Forti is the group’s political director, and Crossroads is expected to be a big player in November.

While American Crossroads has not officially endorsed a candidate, it has been seen by some as tacitly supporting Mr. Romney. It issued a memorandum last month defending his electability in the face of attacks by the Obama campaign. That was soon followed by another, saying its earlier note “probably should have been clearer” that the group remained neutral in the Republican primaries.

Sunlight Foundation: Almost 400 former House staffers registered to lobby in last two years

Friday, February 24th, 2012

The revolving door is alive and well in Washington. In less than three years, at least 377 House staffers employed in personal and committee offices have left Capitol Hill to become registered lobbyists, a Sunlight Foundation analysis of U.S. House disbursement data and federal lobbying records finds.

More than two in five former House staffers who registered as lobbyists went to one of Washington’s many lobbying firms. One in five went to lobby for a for-profit corporation, and another one in five went to lobby for a business or trade association. In other words, corporate America is capturing the lion’s share of former Hill staffers’ expertise. A large number also represent state and local governments and universities in their work for lobbying firms.

Sunlight Foundation

These lobbyists come from all rungs of the House hierarchy. The 377 staffers who left to lobby included 50 legislative assistants, 32 chiefs of staff, 26 legislative directors, and 22 staff assistants.

Many lobbyists came from committees as well. The Committee with the clearest path to K Street was the Financial Services Committee, where nine of 71 staffers (12.7%) went off to lobby within two years, followed closely by Judiciary (9.0%) and Oversight and Government Reform (8.7%).

Congress’s loss is the private sector’s gain. When House offices lose staffers who have built up experience and relationships in Congress, private interests gain both their policy knowhow and their political networks. Meanwhile, the House offices often find themselves relying on the expertise of their former staffers who are now in the employ of private interests.

Recently, we noted that the average House office had a retention rate of 64.2% over a two-year period. Although the majority of departing staff do not move to K Street, 377 staffers is still a significant number.

For a complete list of all the staffers who registered to lobby, what office they worked in, and where they went to lobby, click here.

WHERE STAFFERS GO ON K STREET

More than 80% of former Hill staffers who leave to lobby take jobs at Washington lobbying firms (41.5%), individual corporations (21.3%) and business and trade associations (19.1%).

By comparison, fewer than one in ten go to work for a non-profit advocacy group. Only a single former House staffer went to work for a labor union, though a few do represent unions as part of their work with Washington lobbying firms. Some (5.1%) went to work for occupational associations, such as the American Dental Association or the International Association of Fire Chiefs; another nine went to work for institutions, mostly universities.

It’s important to emphasize that this analysis is limited to registered lobbying. If former House staffers joined advocacy organizations but did not register as lobbyists, they will not show up in these tabulations.

Figure 1. Where staffers who become lobbyists go to lobby

graphic by Ali Felski

If we look at the employment destinations by position in the House, we can see some different career paths. While 56.2% of chiefs of staff who became lobbyists joined Washington lobbying firms, only 30.8% of legislative directors and 23.1% of legislative assistants who registered as lobbyists did so for a lobbying firms

Legislative directors who go downtown are about equally likely to wind up in a lobbying firm, a corporation, or a business or trade association. Legislative assistants are most likely to wind up in a business or trade association.

Non-profit advocacy, meanwhile, did not attract a single chief of staff, but it did attract two of the 26 legislative directors going to lobby and five of the 52 legislative assistants.

Generally, work in a lobbying firm offers individuals the opportunity to make the most money, though it also generally requires the most work. Some individuals prefer the stability or predictability of a corporation or a trade association, where one does not have to shift between multiple clients and does not have to hustle for new business.

 

Figure 2. Where staffers who become lobbyists go to lobby, by position

graphic by Ali Felski

 

REPRESENTATION BY SECTOR

What types of interests do these former staffers represent? In order to answer this question, we added up the number of lobbying contracts that mentioned these staffers.  State and local governments top the list, with 295 contracts, followed closely by pharmaceutical companies at 263, education (mostly universities) at 261, computers/internet at 226, and electric utilities at 192.

Table 1. Sectors former House staffers represent

Certainly, there are different ways to cut these numbers. Telephone utilities, for example spent $253 million on contracts that included these lobbyists, as compared to state and local governments, which spent $38 million, although there were many more contracts involving state and local governments.

A LOOK AT WHO GOES TO BECOME A LOBBYIST

Among the staffers who left, about two-thirds (243) previously worked in member personal offices. Of these individuals, 60.5% (147) came from Democratic offices, as compared to 39.5% (96) from Republicans. Much of this disparity, however, has to do with the fact that the Democrats lost 63 seats in the 2010 mid-term elections, putting hundreds of Democratic staffers out of work.

Among the 147 Democratic staffers who left to become lobbyists, 63 (43%) worked for members who were defeated or retired in 2010.Of member staffers-turned-lobbyists, 32% (77) came from offices where members were defeated or retired; the remaining 68% (166) worked for members who are still in office.

Table 2. Partisanship and member status of staffers turned lobbyists

three members of Congress sent at least four staffer to the ranks of registered lobbyists since 2009: Michael A. Arcuri (D-NY, 5), Adam Putnam (R-FL, 4), and Laura Richardson (D-CA, 4). Arcuri and Putnam are no longer in Congress. Both Arcuri and Richardson were on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Putnam was on the Financial Services Committee.  Table 3 shows the members at least three staff  who became lobbyists.Almost 40% (177) of the House offices in 2009 had at least one staffer become a lobbyist by 2011, and 11% (49) sent at least two individuals to become lobbyists. 

Table 3. Members with highest rates of staff going to lobby

COMMITTEES

Some committees are more likely to generate future lobbyists than others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the House committee with the highest percentage of former staffers going to lobby was the Financial Services Committee, where nine of 71 staffers (12.7%) went off to lobby. The Financial Services Committee handled the Dodd-Frank bill, which will continue to generate major lobbying activity for years as financial regulatory agencies work their way through the approximately 400 rulemaking the bill calls for. The Judiciary (9.0%) and Oversight and Government Reform (8.7%) had the next highest rates. Appropriations sent the most individuals to lobby (11, out of 145 staffers)

Table 4. Rate of staffers becoming lobbyists, by committee/leadership offices

POSITIONS

Certain positions were more likely to lead to future work as a lobbyist than others. The 377staffers employed in the House in 2009 who left to lobby included 50 legislative assistants, 32 chiefs of staff, 26 legislative directors, and 22 staff assistants.Of the 25 most common staff titles, the titles most likely to lead to staffers becoming lobbyists within the 2-year period were “Counsel” (11.2% became lobbyists), “Legislative Director” (8.9% became lobbyists), and “Legislative Counsel” (8.8% became lobbyists). Eight percent of both the chiefs of staff and the deputy chiefs of staff employed in mid-2009 became lobbyists. Interestingly, as we noted in our recent analysis of House operating budget cuts, salaries for “Counsel” positions had suffered the most between 2009 and 2011, down 5.8%. There is probably some connection.

Table 5. Rate of staffers becoming lobbyists, by selected positions

CONCLUSIONS

The revolving door continues to spin. Since July 2009, almost 400 individuals employed as House staffers at the time have left to become registered lobbyists, primarily working for lobbying firms, corporations, and business associations.In many respects, Congress continues to operate as a farm team for future lobbyists. Staff build up contacts and policy and political expertise. Then they often go “downtown” and cash in, taking their expertise and networks with them.

Though a certain flow of personnel from Congress to K Street is inevitable, Congress ought to do more to hold onto experienced staff. Recently, we explored retention rates among House staff, and we found that offices that paid their staff more had slightly higher retention rates, though Hill salaries lag behind private sector comparisons.When staff leave to lobby, their former offices must find somebody new and usually less experienced. And offices who lack staff with policy expertise and political relationships often must rely more on outside lobbyists, who are only too happy to fill the gap.For a complete list of all 378 staffers, what office they worked in, and where they went to lobby, click here.

METHODOLOGY AND DATA

These results are based on a comparison of House disbursement data from the third quarter of 2009 with public lobbying records. One challenge in conducting this analysis is that we are matching on names, and sometimes individuals register as lobbyists under different name permutations than they were listed on the Hill. We do our best to correct for this, but there are limitations. We also note that because certain names are more common than others, there is always the possibility of false positive matches.

Additionally, since our data on staff come from the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives, we are dependent on what the House reports. We must in good faith disclose that the underlying data are messy. At best, the data are approximate, and higher levels of confidence in it can only come when the House of Representatives makes a better effort with respect to how it normalizes and releases the data to the public. To dig through the data yourself, visit our House Expenditure Reports Database.

Special thanks to Daniel Schuman and Alison Rowland for their help on this analysis.

UPDATE: Jennifer Taylor, a legislative assistant in Rep. Pingree’s office, shares a name with Jennifer Taylor, a lobbyist at Van Scoyoc & Associates, resulting in a false positive. The text of this post has been corrected to reflect this. As noted above, our analysis is limited by the quality of the data published by the House disbursement reports and the Senate Office of Public Records. We regret the error and encourage anyone with clarifying information to contact us.

Politico: Super PACs echo parodies

Tuesday, February 14th, 2012

The law couldn’t be more clear: campaigns aren’t supposed to communicate strategy or coordinate spending with their super PAC supporters. And all the candidates claim they’re not doing anything wrong — Santorum insists super PACs don’t come up in his chats with Freiss, and representatives for Gingrich, Romney and Obama all say they’re not breaking the rules either.

It looks like they’ll get the last laugh, since there’s no sign of serious legal or technical challenges to the brazen behavior that might force campaigns or super PACs to reverse course before Election Day.

Politico

When it comes to super PACs, it’s getting hard to tell the difference between reality and a Comedy Central bit.

Stephen Colbert made an ongoing gag last month out of lampooning the rules barring coordination between outside groups and campaigns. When he announced a plan to run for president, he made a big show of handing off his super PAC to his fellow Comedy Central host Jon Stewart. Stewart promised not to coordinate with Colbert — giving the camera a wink and a nod.

But it was no joke last week when President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney cleared their top aides to raise cash for the super PACs supporting their campaign.

Meanwhile, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whose family has pumped $11 million into the super PAC boosting Newt Gingrich’s campaign, sat in on a meeting of the campaign’s national finance committee at one of his Las Vegas hotels this month. He also met privately with both Gingrich and Romney.

And Rick Santorum took the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend after a warm introduction from his friend Foster Friess, a Wyoming multimillionaire who’s given hundreds of thousands of dollars to two super PACs credited with Santorum’s surge.

Friess has become part of Santorum’s campaign inner circle, traveling with the candidate on the trail and participating in sensitive conversations about campaign advertising. Santorum told reporters last week that Friess is “someone who I talk to, who gives me plenty of advice on how I say it and what I say.”

The law couldn’t be more clear: campaigns aren’t supposed to communicate strategy or coordinate spending with their super PAC supporters. And all the candidates claim they’re not doing anything wrong — Santorum insists super PACs don’t come up in his chats with Freiss, and representatives for Gingrich, Romney and Obama all say they’re not breaking the rules either.

It looks like they’ll get the last laugh, since there’s no sign of serious legal or technical challenges to the brazen behavior that might force campaigns or super PACs to reverse course before Election Day.

“It sounds to me as if the current – admittedly inadequate – rules are being bent or broken, especially when persons responsible for [super PAC ads] are also traveling with the candidates and/or advising them,” said Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who was the top lawyer for John McCain’s Republican presidential campaigns, which discouraged outside spending groups.

It’s a bit of life imitating art for Potter, who has been participating in the ongoing Colbert-Stewart gag on their late-night shows. Colbert’s faux pundit character has talked about the “loopchasms” in the coordination restrictions and it’s not hard to imagine him devising a scenario like the Friess-Santorum talks.

While the coordination ban has been in effect for years, it’s gotten a lot more attention since a pair of 2010 federal court decisions created super PACs, allowing them to take unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and unions. The major limitation, as reinforced in the first decision, Citizens United vs. FEC, is that outside group ads “by definition” cannot be “coordinated with a candidate.”  The FEC in June issued an opinion making clear that election rules don’t prohibit candidates or their campaigns from helping super PACs fundraise within pre-existing limits.

And last summer, Romney appeared at multiple fundraisers for the super PAC supporting him, while Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer and House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi have availed themselves of the FEC decision to boost super PAC fundraising pushes.

Santorum’s campaign hasn’t discussed dispatching representatives to help its super PAC raise money, said a source familiar with the outside group. And, while Gingrich’s campaign is considering assisting the fundraising of a supportive super PAC, it has yet to do so, though the pro-Gingrich group, like the ones boosting Obama and Romney, is run by former close associates of the candidate.

The super PACs are like the “the evil twin of the candidate’s campaign committee,” FEC vice chairman Ellen Weintraub told POLITICO. “We really do not know whether this is at all what the courts had in mind when they opened the door to independent spending committees with no contribution limits.”

Obama had blasted such outside groups as a distortion of democracy and he particularly criticized non-profit groups that – unlike super PACs – do not disclose their donors. So Republicans hit him for hypocrisy last week when he bowed to political reality and cleared his top campaign and administration officials to help raise money for Priorities USA Action, the struggling super PAC set up to boost his campaign.

While it had received $215,000 from an affiliated non-disclosing non-profit group called Priorities USA, the groups quietly moved on Friday to segregate their finances in an effort to shield Obama from additional criticism. Because of “all the questions that were raised about it, we just wanted to eliminate any sense that there was a co-mingling that made people uncomfortable,” Bill Burton, the groups’ founder, told POLITICO.

The super PAC is still trying to figure out how it will work with Obama aides to raise money within the rules, Burton said. The super PAC’s January fundraising haul – which will be disclosed in a report due next week – will not show the benefits of the Obama blessing and will be “a pretty small number,” said Burton, who worked as a top aide to Obama on the 2008 campaign and in the White House.

It’s partly ties like Burton’s that have watchdogs and rival operatives accusing campaigns and super PACs of flouting the coordination ban. They point out, for instance, that the super PAC supporting Romney is being run in part by a fundraiser who came on board directly from the campaign and a lawyer whose wife continues to work for the campaign.

Likewise, opponents clucked their tongues when Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s since-aborted presidential campaign produced an ad using video footage shot by the super PAC and when POLITICO reported that billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman, Sr., was both communicating daily with his son’s now-defunct presidential campaign and funding the super PAC supporting it.

Perhaps the most extreme cross-pollination between a campaign and a super PAC is the case of Friess, a 71-year old retired mutual fund manager. Through the end of last year, he had donated $381,000 to a pair of super PACs that buoyed Santorum with ads and robo-calls at a time when his campaign lacked the resources for such important expenditures.

The two men campaigned together nearly around-the-clock in the days before Santorum’s victory in January’s Iowa caucuses and his sweep of last week’s contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. During Santorum’s victory speeches in both instances, Friess stood beaming on stage behind the former Pennsylvania senator. Then on Friday, it was Friess at the podium at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, introducing Santorum as “a dear friend” and “the next president of the United States.”

Behind the scenes, Friess has been even more important to Santorum’s effort.

Days after influential Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats gave his coveted endorsement to Santorum in the run-up to his state’s caucuses, his organization established Leaders For Families Super PAC, which quickly took in $125,000 – almost all of its cash – from Friess, and a pro-Santorum super PAC called the Red, White and Blue Fund, for which Friess is the biggest donor.

Leaders For Families used the cash to air radio and television ads and place automated telephone calls touting the endorsement from Vander Plaats, who had reportedly told Santorum he “needed money to promote the endorsement.”

The Vander Plaats endorsement and promotion thereof “was world changing,” Friess told POLITICO.

And though Friess said he’s asked Red, White and Blue Fund not to use his cash on negative ads, and suggested he’d like its ads to focus on Santorum’s work against Islamic extremism, he said he has nothing to do with the super PAC’s advertising strategy.

“I just send the money in and those guys take care of the ads,” he said. On the other hand, he has actively worked to boost the Red, White and Blue Fund’s fundraising, telling POLITICO he tried to convince Adelson to support Santorum and also planned to solicit donations from donors linked to the libertarian billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Their most recent gathering of major donors, held late last month in Indian Wells, Calif. was attended by both Adelson and Friess.

“There isn’t a person at the Koch brothers events who would not get a good return on their investment by investing in [Santorum] as president, because of what they believe about the free enterprise system,” said Friess.

But, Friess said, he leaves all the super PAC business at the door when he’s with Santorum. “All my lawyer tells me is, to avoid any problems, don’t even mention the super PAC.”

Pressed last week on how he could travel with Friess, given his relationship to the super PAC, Santorum told reporters, “We know what the rules are, and the bottom line is, I don’t think it crosses a line whatsoever. He’s a friend, he’s been a friend for many, many years and has traveled with me in the past before it was a super PAC.” When the issue of Friess’s work on behalf of the super PAC came up again a couple days later, Santorum asserted, “I have no idea what Foster Friess is doing to my super PAC. That’s his business.”

Yet Friess has been privy to sensitive campaign business, including fundraising figures, and a private conversation this month between Santorum and Gingrich, who complained that his positions were distorted by a pair of Santorum campaign ads.

“Newt just came up and said that’s not true and it would be great if you could change that,” said Friess.

Adelson, meanwhile, this month huddled at his Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas with Gingrich, his campaign staff and other big donors for the finance committee meeting. He also held separate private meetings with Gingrich and Romney. Afterwards, Bloomberg News reported that Adelson intended to cut off the flow of cash to the pro-Gingrich super PAC, Winning Our Future.

Adelson has had no formal role in campaign strategy talks, and he and his wife Miriam Adelson stopped by the finance meeting only long enough to hear Gingrich speak before leaving, said a source close to the couple.

The source dismissed the Bloomberg report, explaining Adelson has not made it known whether he intends to continue contributing to Winning Our Future, and would not be influenced in his decision by pressure from other donors or candidates.

Winning Our Future has gone quiet after spending millions on tough ads criticizing Romney’s record at the private equity firm he helmed – an attack Gingrich at first embraced, then backed away from.

The coordination rules make “it much more difficult for the super PAC to do a positive ad for the candidate, since they cannot discuss with the candidate what issues they would like for advertising to address,” said Jim Bopp, a leading GOP campaign finance attorney. “It is easier to do a negative ad on the opponent since consistency of message is not as important there,” said Bopp, a Romney supporter who has advised the former Massachusetts governor on campaign finance policy.

Bopp’s proposal for merged candidate-super PAC fundraising led to the FEC opinion clearing such fundraising, and he suggested he might consider challenging the coordination rules “if I had a client” with a strong case.

“I think the FEC’s coordination rules are very strict, more strict than allowed by the First Amendment,” said Bopp. Rejecting the allegations that the coordination rules are easily circumvented, Bopp asserted campaigns and super PACs are paying close attention to the letter of the law because “the penalties for violation are very severe” and “an investigation is very onerous and burdensome.”

Kansas City Star: Five Democratic ‘super’ PACs may seek joint operation

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Five Democratic “super” political action committees are reaching out to party mega-donors seeking $1 million to $10 million contributions, now that President Barack Obama has blessed the outside spending group working to get him re-elected.

Kansas City Star

Discussions among the five super PACs are under way about setting up a joint fundraising committee, said Bill Burton, a former deputy White House press secretary and co-founder of Priorities USA Action, which was launched last spring to help Obama win a second term.

“We’re in serious talks,” Burton told iWatch News of the Center for Public Integrity, but he added that a final decision hasn’t been made about establishing a joint fundraising mechanism. Either way, “there are a lot of people in the progressive donor community who have not yet gotten involved who are likely to be involved.”

Other top Democratic fundraisers say that a joint fundraising entity is likely and stress that the White House’s abrupt shift on super PACs – which came Monday in a conference call to leading donors and fundraisers with campaign manager Jim Messina – could help prod large donors to write seven-figure checks.

Democratic fundraisers are hoping that several major donors such as Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and Chicago media executive Fred Eychaner, both of whom already have written large checks to Priorities USA Action, will pony up considerably more to a joint committee.

Katzenberg has donated $2 million to Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that Burton and ex-White House aide Sean Sweeney created, and Eychaner, an old friend of Obama’s, has chipped in $500,000.

“There are donors who have expressed interest in a unified effort,” said Harold Ickes, president of Priorities USA Action, who is also a veteran Democratic fundraiser and a lobbyist with strong union ties. “A unified effort makes an enormous amount of sense and is likely to result in more money being raised.”

Democratic super PACs, which were created early last year and have struggled to catch up to better-funded Republican groups such as American Crossroads, are aimed at helping Obama win re-election, preserve the Democratic majority in the Senate and win back the House of Representatives.

Besides Priorities USA Action, the other Democratic groups involved in the joint committee talks include Majority PAC, which is focused on the Senate, and House Majority PAC, which is House-focused. The other two super PACs are American Bridge 21st Century, an opposition research entity that helps the other PACs, and America Votes, a get-out-the-vote operation for Democrats.

Last year, the five super PACs and two affiliated nonprofits raised a combined $19.6 million. In contrast, American Crossroads and its nonprofit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, pulled in $51 million.

Priorities USA Action and its nonprofit affiliate have said they want to raise $100 million. They pulled in $6.7 million in 2011. American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm, launched in early 2010 by GOP consultants Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, are trying to raise $300 million, according to fundraisers close to the group.

The fundraising gold rush by super PACs on both sides has been spurred by court rulings in early 2010 that overturned decades of campaign finance law and opened the floodgates to corporations, individuals and unions writing unlimited checks to pay for ads by outside groups that directly support or oppose candidates.

The new joint effort, fundraisers stress, is expected to be contingent on pulling together a group of super donors who collectively would pony up between $40 million and $100 million. Fundraisers note that it’s important to potential big individual donors that if they write checks in the $5 million range, their contributions would be matched by several others.

The new drive comes after months of growing anxiety among Democrats about their weak super PAC fundraising compared to their GOP counterparts.

Democratic fundraisers say that potential donors have been confused by multiple requests for help from different super PACs working to boost Obama’s campaign as well as the two congressional campaign committees. Last fall, several of the super PACs tried to allay some of these concerns by holding joint meetings with donors, including one in Boston.

The weak super PAC fundraising last year is partly attributable to the much more robust efforts of the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which together pulled in more than $233 million. By comparison, leading GOP contender Mitt Romney’s campaign and the Republican National Committee pulled in only $144 million.

In recent weeks, Democratic fundraisers have grown especially concerned about the powerful impact of the negative ads that two GOP super PACs backing Romney and Newt Gingrich have run in key primaries. In Florida, the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which last year raised $30 million, spent close to $10 million on mostly negative ads against Gingrich to help the former Massachusetts governor win a resounding victory.

In South Carolina, Gingrich’s super PAC Winning Our Future, which has received $11 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his family, ran about $3 million of blistering ads against Romney to help Gingrich score his only win.

Besides Katzenberg and Eychaner, other big donors whose names come up as potential candidates for $5 million or larger donations include Penny Pritzker, an heir to a hotel fortune, who was finance chief for Obama’s 2008 campaign; Haim Saban, a media mogul whose company created the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; and banking executive Robert Wolf, who chairs UBS Group Americas.

Democratic fundraisers, however, are not counting on billionaire George Soros, who gave more than $20 million in 2004 to two outside groups spearheaded by Ickes. Soros contributed $100,000 to Majority PAC in December and $75,000 to House Majority PAC last May, according to Federal Election Commission records.

A top aide to Soros has said that the billionaire has not yet made up his mind about giving more for the presidential effort this year.

Notwithstanding their more bullish fundraising prospects, the new endorsement of Priorities USA Action by the president has sparked heavy criticism from different quarters, including campaign reform advocates and Republicans who have accused the president of betraying his principles and of hypocrisy. The president last year had called super PACs a “threat to democracy” and even Monday morning voiced worries about their negative impacts.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, in a statement called the new policy a “brazenly cynical move by Barack Obama and his political handlers who just a year ago had the chutzpah to call outside groups a threat to democracy.”

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, which favors strict regulation of campaign donations, is writing to the Justice Department to ask for an investigation of the super PACs backing Obama and Mitt Romney.

“We believe that these super PACs are merely arms of the presidential campaigns being run by close associates of the candidates and not legally entitled to be independent groups,” Wertheimer told iWatch News.

Leaders of the two super PACs have said their operations are legal and independent of the campaigns.

Even some longtime Democratic fundraisers voiced concerns about the new push for unlimited funds.

Retired Philadelphia educator Peter Buttenwieser, who raised more than $500,000 for the first Obama campaign and still backs the president, said in an interview: “I understand that the president had virtually no other choice and so I’m supportive of it. But I’m not happy about the new direction. I think it puts us in a somewhat compromised position.”

Los Angeles Times: ‘Super PACs’ largely funded by a wealthy few

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

A few super-rich individuals are using their personal and corporate wealth to influence American politics in an unprecedented manner

LA Times

When it comes to big money in politics, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons’ influence has long been apparent in Texas, where he has plowed more than $1 million into Rick Perry‘s gubernatorial campaigns.

Now Simmons has found a new outlet for his outsize political giving — the explosion this election cycle of “super PACs,” independent political organizations that can accept massive contributions to influence the presidential race and other federal elections.

Simmons and his privately held holding company, Contran Corp., dumped $8.6 million into a series of GOP-allied super PACs last year, according to campaign finance records released late Tuesday night. That propels Simmons into the top tier of a newly minted millionaires’ club — super-rich individuals who are using their personal and corporate wealth to influence American politics in an unprecedented manner.

Seventeen people or companies gave at least $1 million each to super PACs last year, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times data desk. The infusion ushered in an era of Texas-style unlimited donations at the national level. The organizations have emerged as heavyweights in this year’s presidential contest, at times outstripping the influence of the candidates’ own campaigns.

That’s the case with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose presidential bid has been kept afloat by Winning Our Future, a super PAC that has received $11 million from Las Vegas Sands Chief Executive Sheldon Adelson and his family.

The Adelsons gave the funds with no strings attached and no specific expectations, because Gingrich “is an old friend in a time of need,” said one person close to the couple. It’s wealthy individuals like the Adelsons who are largely powering these new organizations — not major corporations, as many critics on the left had warned. But because companies are probably giving to tax-exempt organizations that do not have to reveal their donors, it is impossible to get a full picture of their influence.

Many members of the millionaires’ club have, like Adelson, long been generous political donors and fundraisers. Simmons, Houston home builder Bob Perry and Dallas real estate magnate Harlan Crow are among a group of wealthy Texans that helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an outside group that during the 2004 campaign attacked Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry’s war record. They and their companies are now backing American Crossroads, the biggest Republican super PAC, which aims to spend $240 million this cycle.

In 2010, Robert Mercer, manager of the New York hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, gave $640,000 to a super PAC that tried unsuccessfully to defeat Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, a vocal Wall Street critic. Last year, Mercer was among 10 individuals or companies writing $1-million checks to Restore Our Future, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC.

Seven-figure contributions were rarer on the Democratic side, whose super PACs have not yet matched the fundraising of their GOP counterparts. One of the few contributions that large came from DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave $2 million in May to Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting President Obama.

The left relies in this cycle — as it has in the past — on the muscular role of organized labor in funding ads and turning out its members. In this election, the unions are also filling the coffers of new super PACs. The Service Employees International Union, which represents 2 million workers, gave nearly $1.6 million to Democratic-leaning super PACs in 2011. All told, SEIU is expected to spend about $85 million on political activity, equal to the record amount the union dedicated to the 2008 presidential election.

Super PACs sprang up as a result of a series of court decisions in 2010, including the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, which freed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on political activity. That decision has been heatedly decried by campaign finance reform advocates and many Democrats, including Obama, who has warned it will lead to a flood of unregulated corporate cash in politics.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much corporate money is in the system, since many of the outside groups are organized as nonprofits, allowing them to keep their donors secret. While American Crossroads, co-founded by GOP political strategist Karl Rove, reported the donors that gave it $18.4 million last year, its nonprofit affiliate, Crossroads GPS, raised an additional $32.6 million from undisclosed contributors.

The latest campaign finance records reveal that dozens of private companies, hedge funds and business partnerships contributed to super PACs last year. But in an initial review of the filings, Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas producer based in Oklahoma City, appears to be the only publicly traded company that gave money, making a $250,000 donation to a super PAC backing Rick Perry’s since-suspended presidential bid.

Chesapeake did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The paucity of well-known corporate names among the disclosures doesn’t mean that leading businesses won’t be involved in electoral politics this presidential cycle, according to top corporate lobbyists in Washington.

Major companies are expected to fuel record political activity at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plans to spend at least $50 million on congressional races this year. The chamber, which does not disclose its donors, disputed the amount.

Although many of the nation’s leading CEOs are eager to participate in this year’s election, they largely plan to steer clear of super PACs because of the disclosure requirements.

“I think the Target experience makes them gun-shy,” said Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, referring to a national boycott against the retail chain in 2010 after it donated to a political group backing a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who had made negative statements about gay and lesbian rights.

Simmons, a buyout investor who controls a stable of companies that produce metals and chemicals, has never been hesitant about using his fortune to promote his brand of conservative politics. He gave $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 and helped finance a nonprofit group in 2008 that spent $2.9 million on ads attacking Obama’s ties to William Ayers, a former member of the 1960s-era Weather Underground.

Simmons has poured $1.1 million into Perry’s campaigns, making him the second-largest individual donor to the Texas governor. Under Perry’s administration, one of Simmons’ companies, Waste Control Specialists, received permission to build the first new low-level radioactive waste disposal site in the country in three decades in an isolated patch of West Texas, despite objections from some state environmental agency staffers.

Simmons now has even more wealth at his disposal: In the last year, his net worth ballooned to roughly $9.6 billion, largely because the stock of Valhi, a chemicals conglomerate he controls, rose 170%, Forbes reported in December.

In the last year, he gave $1.1 million to two super PACs backing Perry’s presidential bid, along with $500,000 to Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC. In the fall, he donated $5 million to American Crossroads, while Contran gave $2 million.

“Mr. Simmons is a passionate conservative, and he has been for quite some time,” said his spokesman, Chuck McDonald, who described Simmons as “pro-business” and a supporter of tort reform.

But Simmons is not pursuing a specific policy agenda with his donations, McDonald said.

“I know people want to think he is,” he said. “He is a man who has a lot of personal wealth and believes in conservative ideology, and that’s where he puts his money.”

NPR: Gingrich Fights Against The Lobbyist Label

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich continues to fend off accusations that he should wear the scarlet “L” — for “lobbyist.” This week, he released two of his consulting contracts and said they didn’t call for any lobbying

NPR

Like many other former lawmakers, Gingrich was advocating for paying clients, while not officially registering as a lobbyist.

The two contracts disclosed this week came from Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant. Between 1999 and 2007, Freddie Mac paid his firm $1.6 million.

The contracts say he was advising and discussing, not lobbying — at least not in the legal sense of the word.

“There is no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I have never done any lobbying,” Gingrich said at a debate Monday night.

Gingrich deliberately avoided registering as a lobbyist, which would make public his clients and their payments to him.

There is no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I have never done any lobbying.

– Newt Gingrich

“In fact, we brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff. And that expert is prepared to testify that he was brought in to say, ‘Here is the bright line,’ ” Gingrich said.

That expert is Thomas Susman, now the head lobbyist for the American Bar Association. He says his work for Gingrich is no secret.

“He said that I could go public with my representation back when I first worked for him,” Susman says.

But Susman’s version doesn’t quite match Gingrich’s. He’s sure he gave Gingrich some advice about the federal lobbying law, but not enough that he remembers doing so.

“I’m sure I would have, because that was what my expertise and involvement had been,” he says.

Besides, that really wasn’t Gingrich’s focus.

“He was involved with a number of clients of his group at the state level, with state legislators and state officials. And that was where he was most concerned,” Susman says.

Promoting Part D

Gingrich is also defending his advocacy of the Medicare drug benefit known as Part D.

On Thursday, rival Mitt Romney’s campaign brought out former New Hampshire Republican Rep. Jeb Bradley, who told reporters about a meeting with Gingrich before the congressional vote on Part D in 2003.

“I’ll tell you, that day that I met with Newt, he was lobbying,” Bradley said.

Gingrich says he promoted Part D as a citizen, not a paid lobbyist. He cited the need for better diabetes treatment as an example at Monday night’s debate.

“I publicly favored Medicare Part D for a practical reason. And that reason is simple: The U.S. government was not prepared to give people anything — insulin, for example — but they would pay for kidney dialysis,” he said.

But while Gingrich long supported the drug benefit, it’s also true that Novo Nordisk, a company that specializes in diabetes treatment, was a $200,000-a-year member of his Center for Health Transformation.

Lobbyist Loathing

This stance of “do no lobbying” has defined Gingrich’s post-Congress career.

If he wants to be the first president who’s a registered lobbyist, we’d love it.

– Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists

The assertion shows up on the website of the Center for Health Transformation and in one of the Freddie Mac contracts.

But lobbyists rarely use the L word in their contracts. Susman remembers the so-called engagement letters used by his old law firm.

“We’d use such terms as advocacy, including advice and counsel, including organizing. But probably not use the word lobbying in it,” he says.

Susman is active in a push to make the lobbying industry more transparent.

So is political scientist James Thurber, who heads up an institute on lobbying at American University. Thurber says there should be disclosure by so-called senior advisers — the former lawmakers, like Gingrich, who don’t formally register as lobbyists.

“They don’t have to be called lobbyists, but let’s find out who they are,” Thurber says.

And even some lobbyists want more transparency for their industry. An association called the American League of Lobbyists is working on a reform proposal.

The league’s president, Howard Marlowe, says he wishes Gingrich wouldn’t run away from the profession.

“If he wants to be the first president who’s a registered lobbyist, we’d love it,” Marlowe says.

But for now, Gingrich and other politicians seem pretty sure that a registered lobbyist is about the last candidate voters would want.