2:31am

Thu April 19, 2012
Planet Money

Why Lobbyists Dodge Calls From Congressmen

Originally published on Fri April 20, 2012 9:36 am

This story is part of our series on money in politics.

We imagine the lobbyist stalking the halls of Congress trying to use cash to influence important people. But it doesn't always work that way. Often, the Congressman is stalking the lobbyist, asking for money.

Lawmakers of both parties need to raise millions of dollars per election cycle. So lobbyists get calls from lawmakers and their staffs all the time, inviting them to fundraisers, according to Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist for the real estate industry.

"A lot of them would call and say 'Hey ... can you host an event for me?'" Williams says. "You spend most of your time dodging phone calls."

But when a Congressman calls and you need his vote, you agree to host a fundraiser. That means finding other people to come and give money.

"So I call up my buddies down on K Street," Williams says. "I'm gonna do this event for this guy, and he sits on the House Financial Services committee. You guys have any money for this person?"

With a lot of these events, there's space on the invitation to put your credit card number. Some lobbyists send their donation in ahead of time. Others bring the money to the event.

"We have a policy that all checks have to be hand delivered," says Scott Talbott, a lobbyist for the financial services industry. "So we have to go up and eyeball the candidate... Wouldn't you remember if someone handed you a check rather than sent it in the mail?"

Tomorrow on Morning Edition: What those checks are buying.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Every day in Washington, D.C., in private dining rooms, bars and restaurants, rented townhouses all over the city, lobbyists gather to give money to lawmakers. In peak months, more than 20 fundraisers of this type happen each day. When you hear about the impact of money on politics, the D.C. fundraiser is one of the main places where that is felt. But most of us don't go to these events. They cost hundreds or, in many cases, thousands of dollars to get in.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Alex Blumberg, from our Planet Money Team, talked with several lobbyists - who do pony up the money - about what goes on at these fundraisers.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: If you hear the word fundraiser and think black tie, steak on the menu, famous singer performing, get that idea out of your head. Fundraisers, the D.C. variety, are much more mundane.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: There's the congressman or senator in a room, and then about 10 or 20 people, usually lobbyists, around a table. People like Scott Talbot, a financial services industry lobbyist.

SCOTT TALBOT: I went to a fundraiser last night. And I was on the elevator, it was 7:30 at night and I got on the elevator to go down to the next fundraiser.

BLUMBERG: How much of your day is that? I mean how many...

TALBOT: You could easily do breakfast, lunch and dinner, in terms of fundraising, and afternoon coffee and, you could fill it up - fill up your day.

JIMMY WILLIAMS: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Breakfast, lunch, and at least two at dinner.

BLUMBERG: This is our other insider guide to the Washington D.C. Fundraiser, Jimmy Williams, who lobbied for many years for the real estate industry. And Williams says the way most of us generally think about the interaction between lobbyists and lawmakers is backwards.

We imagine the lobbyist stalking the halls of Congress trying to influence people with cash. But more often than not, it's the reverse. The member is stalking the lobbyist, saying, hey, you got any money for me?

SEABROOK: Lawmakers of both parties need a staggering amount of cash to get elected - millions of dollars per election cycle. So, lobbyists get calls from lawmakers and their staffs, all the time, inviting them to fundraisers or to organize fundraisers. Again, Jimmy Williams.

WILLIAMS: A lot of them would call and say hey, you know, can you host an event for me. And you never want to say no. Actually, no, you always want to say no. In fact, you can look on your phone with these caller IDs, and you would be like, really, I'm not taking that call.

BLUMBERG: Oh, so you would dodge calls for fundraisers?

WILLIAMS: Oh yeah, every lobbyist does it. Are you kidding? You spend most of your time dodging phone calls. Oh yeah.

SEABROOK: Still, Jimmy says, you can't say no all the time - especially to a congressman who's work - and votes - you care about. So, he'd say yes, and then he'd have to round up a bunch of guests.

WILLIAMS: So I call up my buddies down on K street. And I say hey dude, my buddy over at the credit unions, or my buddy over at the insurance company, or my buddy over wherever, with the homebuilders. And I say I'm going to do this event for this guy, and he sits on the House Financial Services Committee, and do you guys have any money for this person? Is he in your budget?

And the answer was usually yeah, yeah, I've got money for that guy. And so I say, all right, so cool. So we'll come up with a date and then we have this fundraiser, and it's a breakfast, or it's a lunch, or a dinner or a cocktail reception. And everyone comes and they bring their checks, or they mail their checks in. And then you have it.

SEABROOK: This is the moment where the money changes hands. And you might be wondering what that moment is like. Is it like handing the groom an envelope at a wedding reception? Does someone collect it at the door when you walk in?

BLUMBERG: The answer is all of the above. Some people pay with plastic. Some lobbyists send their donations in ahead of time. And some, like financial services industry lobbyist Scott Talbott, are more up front.

TALBOT: We have a policy that all checks have to be hand delivered. So we have to go up and eyeball the candidate, and talk to them, and deliver the check, and see...

BLUMBERG: So you bring it with you. You have it in your pocket.

TALBOT: And I've left in my coat pocket many times. My wife has said what is this for, you know, this envelope? So that has happened.

SEABROOK: What do you mean by - why is that better (unintelligible) than, you know, just doing an electronic transfer?

TALBOT: Well, because it is the ability to help the candidate who is receiving contributions from multiple sources, remember you, the industry, et cetera, et cetera. Wouldn't you remember if someone handed you a check, versus just got it in the mail?

BLUMBERG: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, those checks that are changing hands, what exactly that money buys. I'm Alex Blumberg.

SEABROOK: And I'm Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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NEARY: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.