Hill political spending hits high

With high-stakes bills pending, lobbyists get wallets out, and nonelection-year fundraising is untraditionally high.

In a break with the historical pattern for a nonelection year, record amounts of money are being put into lobbying and campaign finance on Capitol Hill - perhaps foreshadowing an even more intense era of big-money influence in the nation's capital.

Fundraising typically is sluggish, especially in the first year of a presidential term. But preliminary figures for 2001 show special interests spent money on the Hill and filled up campaign war chests at a faster clip than usual - both because of concern that campaign finance reform might finally pass and because of big-stake issues coming up in Congress. The Republican Party, for example, reports a 76 percent increase in donations between January and November over the same period in the last nonelection year in 1999. And the upward trend in lavish spending on big leglislative outcomes continued. The US Chamber of Commerce, for example, spent nearly $1.9 million just for expert testimony in its successful campaign to repeal ergonomics regulations.

It's a convergence of politics and money that troubles many observers, including some lobbyists and politicians.

"Both sides of the aisle have gotten ever more aggressive in the pursuit of money, whether hard [regulated] or soft [unregulated], and the special interests have become almost more blatant than ever in terms of what they expect in return for it," says Rep. James Moran (D) of Virginia, who sits on the House Budget and Appropriations Committees.

Holley Bailey, who has analyzed 2001 political party spending data for the Center for Responsive Politics, agrees. "It has been a particularly intensive year for money in politics, especially for an off-election year," she says.

A campaign finance bill pending before Congress would ban so-called soft - or unregulated - money in political campaigns, and, says Ms. Bailey, "preliminary data ... show that people are raising money hand over fist to get those dollars."

Her organization's analysis of political giving shows that in the first six months of 2001, the Republican Party received $143 million, 76 percent more donations than in the same period in 1999. Democratic fundraising netted $70 million, a 22 percent increase over that period in 1999.

"We're doing much better than in previous years," says Dan Allen, a spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (RSCC).

The committee raised $48.5 million between January and November, compared with $7.3 million in all of 1999. "We've been very aggressive at the grass-roots level, and President Bush has been an enormous help," he says.

The decision of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords to leave the GOP, ceding control of the chamber to Democrats, has also "energized our base," he adds.

Major regulatory issues before Congress could also make this the most expensive lobbying year on the Hill ever. For example:

• A controversial bid to deregulate broadband Internet service has already generated tens of millions in spending from telephone, cable, and other competing firms.

• The lobbying effort for the Bush energy plan, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has drawn more than $3.5 million in advertising from oil companies and other business interests.

• The fight to give patients the option to sue providers of managed-healthcare plans generated more than $5 million in advertising in 2000. It was running at a comparable pace in 2001, until the Sept. 11 attacks changed the political agenda.

Big-ticket items in Congress have also caused corporate America and others to open their wallets this year. In their bid to win the $200 billion contract to build the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft, for instance, rivals Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. spent $17.6 million on lobbying in 2000, according to the CRP. (This year's lobbying reports are not yet final.)

In addition, Lockheed Martin contributed $550,875 to candidates and political parties in the first half of 2001. Boeing gave $468,000.

The prospect of billions in new federal spending for the war on terrorism brought a surge of new lobbying on Capitol Hill. The ailing airline industry won a $20 billion bailout, and the insurance industry is lobbying aggressively for help from Washington in the event of further terrorist attacks.

The $100 billion economic stimulus plan stalled in Congress has particularly attracted corporate lobbyists. At stake: some $39 billion in depreciation allowances and a possible repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax, worth hundreds of millions to some businesses.

"There's a huge volume of money going through the [lobbying] profession, and going to those seeking election," says Don Alexander, a former IRS commissioner, now a lobbyist with a Washington-based law firm.

Since Sept. 11, the restricted access to the US Capitol has meant that many of the city's 17,000 lobbyists have had to get more creative in finding ways to meet legislators. One venue they're increasingly turning to - fundraisers.

"Is the only time we are going to be able to see a member and talk to them face to face going to be at a fundraiser?" asks Jim Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists.

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