Top industry executives piled into Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters over the weekend to hear California’s Barbara Boxer, New Mexico’s Jeff Bingaman and other Democratic senators discuss some of the most pressing policy issues on Capitol Hill.
The price of admission: $5,000 to $30,400, made payable to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
For those who prefer to get up close and personal with the Republicans, Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine and other GOP officials will be at the Grand Hyatt in Washington on Monday to brief anyone who’s interested — as long as they’re willing to write checks for $5,000 and $15,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
With health care, regulatory reform and climate change rumbling through Congress, candidates and campaign committees for both parties see an irresistible opportunity to cash in ahead of the pivotal 2010 midterm elections.
Scores of fundraisers by candidates in both parties are tailored specifically to the issues dominating action on the Hill — a public policy discussion that happens far away from the general public. Election watchdogs and ethics experts fear these "issues conferences" are rife with conflicts — since those who are affected most directly by the policies often are the ones attending the briefings and writing the checks.
"They’re offering up the issue on a silver platter," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors the intersection of money and politics. "If you want access and influence with this lawmaker, you’d better attend the fundraiser that he’s sponsoring."
And it raises concerns that those who can afford the top-dollar fundraisers are the ones who get special access to influence members of Congress — at the expense of those who can’t afford to drop a hefty chunk of change to make their views known.
"When you have these kinds of events, it certainly kind of begs the question: If these people aren’t getting a special seat at the table, how come it’s organized around the fundraiser?" said Nancy Watzman, who tracks political fundraisers for the advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation.
Consumer Watchdog urged the seven Democratic senators on the agenda for the weekend’s Google event to boycott it, since it created the appearance of "pay-to-play politics when so many issues of concern to Google and the rest of the Silicon Valley technology community are on the table."
"This event puts policy and campaign cash in the same breath and needs to be canceled before anyone’s ethics are tarnished," Jamie Court and John Simpson, two officials at the group, said in the letter. But the event was expected to go on as scheduled, with Bingaman, the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, and Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, participating in a roundtable discussing energy and environmental issues; Sens.
Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mark Warner of Virginia discussing innovation policy; and Bingaman and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich talking health care and technology.
Delaware Sen. Tom Carper also was expected to attend, as was President Barack Obama’s pollster, Joel Benenson.
Jamie Yood, a spokesman for Google, said the DSCC paid the costs and controlled the agenda of the weekend’s event. Yood dismissed the idea that his company was getting special access to senators. "As you know, most U.S. companies have fundraisers in their facilities," Yood said.
Eric Schultz, DSCC spokesman, said that when Democrats took over Capitol Hill in 2007, they approved the "strongest" ethics and lobbying reform law in history.
"All of our fundraising is fully transparent and follows the law," Schultz said.
The DSCC and NRSC are not alone in such fundraising tactics, as a number of other Democratic and GOP fundraisers have centered on the day’s biggest Hill debates: health care, climate change and financial regulatory reform.
For instance, in July, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits and raises money for Democratic House candidates, held a health care breakfast with its "special guest": New York Rep. Charles Rangel, the chairman
of the Ways and Means Committee, which wrote a critical portion of the health care bill.
Political action committees were asked to drop anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 to attend the event with Rangel and other powerful lawmakers.
The DCCC also held a health care reception and dinner at Charlie Palmer Steak, an upscale Washington restaurant, where donors dropped up to $15,000 and rubbed elbows with special guests Reps. Pete Stark of California and Frank Pallone of New Jersey, two key players in the health care debate.
Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman for the DCCC, said smaller contributions from the grass roots, including online donors, have spiked substantially as Democrats have battled with the GOP over health care.
"House Democrats enacted the strongest ethics and lobbying reform in history and are committed to enacting meaningful health insurance reform to reduce skyrocketing costs for millions of middle-class families," Rudominer said. "The real danger here is for House Republicans who have to answer for trying to kill health insurance reform while taking millions from their big insurance industry backers."
The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect House Republicans, held a luncheon and roundtable discussion on the economy and Obama’s tax and spending policies. Those who wanted to attend the discussion had to pay $15,000 to listen to members from the relevant committees as well as the ranking Republican on Financial Services, Alabama Rep. Spencer Bachus, and the top Republican on Ways and Means, Michigan Rep. Dave Camp.
"We make no apologies for accepting support from individuals who are deeply troubled by the anti-business policies of Washington Democrats," said Paul Lindsay, NRCC spokesman. "The conflict of interest in this Congress is the fact that a tax cheat presides over the House tax-writing committee, and a key appropriator is running a favor factory for his friends and allies."
Monday’s GOP event will begin with an opening NRSC luncheon with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Then Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso will talk health care; Grassley, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, will talk to donors about
finance, tax and trade; and Collins, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, will talk homeland security. Later that afternoon, Thune, the No. 4 Republican in Senate leadership, and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker will both discuss the economy; the ranking Republican on the Energy Committee, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, will discuss energy; Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo will talk about small government; and Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe will talk about the Second Amendment.
"Issues of the day are topics of discussion at fundraising events across the country, in both political parties and at all levels of political campaigns," said Brian Walsh, NRSC spokesman. "The only difference is that more Americans are rightfully concerned with the one-party control in Washington and the big-spending policies the Democrats are pushing."