Lobbying Firm Closes, Earmarker Fundraising Plummets?
By Paul Kane
Ethics watchdogs have spent years trying to document the connection between campaign contributions and the billions of dollars a year that are earmarked to clients of well-connected lobbyists. But this week's fund-raising reports offer a rare glimpse into the other side of the equation: What happens if lobbyists disappear?
Three senior House Democrats revealed stunning drops in donations for the first quarter of 2009, following the shuttering of a lobbying firm that in previous election cycles helped steer millions of dollars in donations from its lobbyists and earmark-seeking clients to their political committees.
Reps. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) and James Moran (D-Va.) took in 58 percent less in combined campaign contributions so far this year compared to the first quarter of 2007, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
Examining just donations from individuals who gave more than $200 - a donor category that captures what most lobbyists and their clients contribute - the drop-off is even more severe.
The lawmakers took in just $185,000 from those individuals so far this year, a 76 percent drop from the combined haul of almost $760,000 from large-donor individuals in the corresponding period two years ago.
This lack of political cash is not a sign of electoral weakness, because all three are in safe, Democratic-leaning seats. But the lawmakers are all senior members of the House Appropriations Committee, with Murtha chairing the powerful defense subcommittee, on which the other two also serve. From that perch the trio has been particularly successful in raising money from lobbyists, especially the PMA Group, a firm founded 20 years ago by a former Defense Appropriations Committee staffer close to Murtha. Earlier this decade the firm hired top aides of both Visclosky and Moran.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, those lawmakers have been the largest recipients of donations from PMA lobbyists and their clients. In the 2008 election cycle Murtha alone took in $775,000 in PMA-linked donations for his reelection campaign and his political action committee.
The firm's clients have been highly successful at winning those narrow spending requests known as earmarks, usually one line item in one of the 12 annual spending bills that fund the federal government. In just one such bill - the 2008 spending plan for the Pentagon, overseen by Murtha - the PMA Group's clients took in $300 million worth of earmarks, according to a study by Congressional Quarterly and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
But PMA closed this spring after the FBI raided its offices last fall as part of its investigation into the firm's ties to Capitol Hill.
All three Democrats defend their earmarking as perfectly legitimate. However, reports about questionable donations from people with no obvious connection to the firm prompted Visclosky to conduct his own audit, donating money to the U.S. Treasury equaling the contributions he deemed improper.
The others rejected this approach. In a mid-February interview, Moran defended the PMA Group's founder, Paul Magliochetti, as "probably the most professional of all representatives of small defense firms."
"I don't know enough about what's motivating the FBI," he added.
Moran said Magliochetti was "a pro" because his position as a former staffer gave him acute knowledge of the need to get Pentagon approval of projects he was seeking funding for. If the Pentagon deemed the projects worthy, the subcommittee was likely to reward PMA's clients, Moran said. "We knew that when he asked for something it had already been vetted."
Now, Moran's own fundraising has dropped precipitously. In the first quarter of 2007 - the time during which earmark requests are due - Moran raised $138,000 from individuals giving him $200 or more.
Over the same timeframe this year, Moran took in just $31,100 from those individuals. From all donors Moran raised about half as much money as he did back in the first quarter of 2005, when Democrats were in the minority and he exercised not nearly as much clout.
Lobbyists still donated to Moran, and many more are likely to come in over the next 18 months. But gone from the receipts ledger for Moran - and Murtha and Visclosky - are dozens of contributions that used to pour in from PMA Group lobbyists and their clients.
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