Bailout Lobbying, Grassroots, and PACs

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If ever there was a doubt that campaign contributions effect the votes of lawmakers, look no further than today’s Op-Ed from Amy Showalter in Roll Call. Showalter is the President of the Showalter Group, providing advice to corporations and trade associations on how to leverage grassroots pressure and PAC contributions in their lobbying efforts. Showalter’s Op-Ed attempts to reveal why certain lawmakers changed their votes on the recent bailout legislation. In doing so, Showalter winds up higlighting the seedy behavior of feeding campaign contributions to lawmakers in exhange for votes and the stealth nature of grassroots lobbying. On PAC contributions she writes:

Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), who faced one of the toughest re-election fights in the House, told the Associated Press that he changed his mind after he received telephone calls from General Motors Corp. chief executive officer G. Richard Wagoner Jr. and other auto and corporate executives. “I’ve never talked to as many bank presidents in my life, over my entire life,” he said.

Knollenberg has received $131,500 from GM since he started serving in Congress in 1993, according to Federal Election Commission records, illustrating another “predictor of influence success.” Our survey showed that giving a legislator the maximum allowable political action committee contribution is a predictor of persuasion success.

Lobbyists representing the housing, financial, auto and other business sectors pushed hard for the bailout bill. Several of the lawmakers who changed their minds have received campaign contributions from those industry PACs.

Schmidt has received $70,100 from American Financial Group Inc., a Cincinnati-based insurance holding company, and $16,500 from the American Bankers Association since she was elected to Congress in 1989.

Rep. Judy Biggert (R) was the only Illinois lawmaker to change her mind about the bailout package. Since she began representing her suburban Chicago district in 1989, she has received $45,000 from the National Association of Realtors, $39,500 from the National Automobile Dealers Association and $37,548 from the ABA.

Most lawmakers say they aren’t influenced by campaign contributions, but the recent bailout votes suggest otherwise. We found that the most successful influence attempts typically include campaign contributions. In other words, a PAC contribution represents “exchange” and cements relationships.

While campaign contributions do have to be disclosed to the public, they are only disclosed in quarterly filing reports. This prevents the type of real-time oversight that could be occuring if these “exchanges” were made available to the public as they happened.

Showalter also emphasizes the need for lawmakers to here from “key influentials” in their district. These are often business leaders or small business owners who can be engaged in a grassroots lobbying campaign organized by trade associations. After the initial failure of the bailout bill in Congress, the business community, along with AARP, began a huge grassroots campaign to get business owners to call their congressmen and senators to push for passage of the bill. That grassroots push provided the many examples that Showalter uses in her Op-Ed to show the importance of constituent communications and likely pushed the bill to its ultimate, overwhelming success.

While coalitions that often engage in this type of manufactured grassroots pressure are required to disclose their activities under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, the actual effort of grassroots lobbying is still left untouched by disclosure requirements. In the world according to Showalter, a pro at influencing lawmakers, the best ways to get to a lawmaker’s heart are still through means not fully policed by disclosure laws.

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