Dozens of registered federal lobbyists raised money directly for the re-election campaigns of incumbent Republican U.S. Senators over the first half of 2013. But just one — a Boeing executive who bundled more than $41,000 in contributions for Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — was disclosed to the Federal Election Commission under a 2007 law governing lobbyist bundlers.
In the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. One of its provisions was a requirement that any registered lobbyist who collects $16,000 or more in “bundled” contributions for a candidate or committee in a six-month period be publicly disclosed by the recipient. These disclosures, reported to the Federal Election Commission, are posted on the agency’s website.
But since the law went into effect in 2009, just 533 lobbyist bundler reports have been filed with the FEC. And so far in 2013, just 15 committees have filed any reports at all, out of the hundreds of active campaigns, parties, and PACs.
Mary Boyle, vice president vice president for communications at Common Cause notes that part of the reason for this is Citizens United, the controversial 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision that outside groups can spend unlimited funds on campaign ads as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with the candidates or their staff. While she says there is “certainly no evidence that lobbyists are suddenly uninterested in helping members fundraise,” the idea of bundling of direct contributions (which are subject to contribution limits) seems dated. While “bundlers at a certain level still have clout with incumbents and candidates,” she observes, “our campaign finance laws have made it easier for someone to go out and spend whatever they want, thereby bypassing the tedious work for collecting $2,400 checks.”
But another factor, Boyle notes, is also at play: a loophole that lets lobbyists circumvent the spirit of the law.
Political Party Time, a website operated by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, keeps a calendar of hundreds of political fundraising events for candidates and incumbents. A ThinkProgress review of that database found that in the first three months of 2013, registered lobbyists hosted fundraising events for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). But while these events solicited three-and-four-figure contributions — assuming honest compliance by the campaigns — none of the 33 registered lobbyists who co-hosted these events raised enough to meet the $16,000 reporting threshold.
Does that mean the receptions were less than lucrative? Not necessarily. “The regulations have loopholes that allow bundlers to co-host fundraisers and divide up the proceeds before forwarding the contributions,” Boyle told ThinkProgress, “which let’s lobbyists circumvent the reporting threshold.” For example, the March 6, 2013 fundraising lunch for Cornyn was co-hosted by five lobbyists from Capital Tax Associates, a firm specializing in tax legislative and regulatory matters. None of the lobbyists responded to a ThinkProgress inquiry about how much the $1,000-a-plate event raised — but had it yielded $75,000 for the Senate Finance Committee member, each of the five could legally have said that they raised $15,000 and avoided public disclosure.
The aim of these disclosure rules was to allow the public to see which lobbyists were influencing elected officials by raising large sums of money for their campaigns. But with lobbyists so easily able to dodge the threshold, it has yielded very little information or accountability.
While disclosure of lobbyist bundlers by both parties is minimal, Democrats appear to be somewhat more transparent. Twelve of the fifteen committees that reported receiving bundled contributions from lobbyists this year were for Democrats, while just three (Graham, Rep. Peter King of New York, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee) were for Republicans.