The US capital could well be the only city in the world where lobbyists spend US$3 billion on something that they themselves insist is not even for sale: the votes of US lawmakers.
Washington is crawling with lobbyists — 10,199 of them to be exact, according to Opensecrets.org, the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Over the years, they have come to symbolize the sour side of influencing the powerful and power-hungry in the US Congress, with massive amounts of money sloshing around the notorious K Street corridors lobbyists call home.
Total lobbying spending — seeking congressional or government action on anything from health, energy and transportation industries to defense and agribusiness — amounted to US$3.32 billion last year and this year is on track for about the same.
In an election year like this one, fundraising events can run morning, noon and night.
“Congress is here this week, so there could be dozens every day,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group seeking more government transparency.
In an effort to shed light on the nexus between lobbying and congressional campaigns, she collects invitations to such events and posts them on a Web site.
The sheer number of fundraisers illustrates the outsized role money has come to play in US politics — and it has only increased since the last election cycle, after a US Supreme Court decision loosened contribution restrictions.
On one day this month, no fewer than 14 receptions were -recorded by Sunlight, starting with an 8am breakfast for Democrat John Garamendi (US$1,000 to US$1,500 per person), a lunch for Michael Fitzpatrick (US$500 to US$1,000) at the Capitol Hill Club — a private social club for Republicans — and a Mexican fiesta for Democrat Ed Pastor (US$500 to US$1,000).
Pastor, a 10-term congressman from Arizona, has already raised US$530,845 for the November elections, but it is still not enough.
“You just try to keep going and raise as much money as you can,” he said, before heading into the event. “If you don’t have money, your campaign will not be very successful ... It takes money, so you need to raise it.”
In the heat of a re-election campaign, lawmakers can devote up to 30 hours a week fundraising by telephone or in receptions, -Sunlight’s policy director John Wonderlich said.
However, does that constitute buying influence? In a moment of candor, Pastor said that it could be viewed that way.
Lobbyists and contributors “do have some influence because Arizona companies, they hire Arizona people, so you have got to be cognizant that your constituents have to be employed and you also have to deal with their interests,” he said.
One figure who long symbolized the ethical shortcomings of lobbyists’ attempts to woo lawmakers was Jack Abramoff.
At the height of his influence, he led a team of 40 lobbyists and had access to the White House. He was jailed in 2006 on corruption charges.
Abramoff claims his 43 months in prison redeemed him and he now crusades against the -institution he once dominated.
“If you ask any member of Congress, they are going to tell you that their vote is not for sale for a US$2,000 check, and they are probably right in the abstract,” he said.
“The problem is this: once you do something like that for a public servant, once you do something that engenders gratitude from somebody, either they are going to express that gratitude overtly and they are going to do something directly back for you, or they are at least going to view you more favorably,” Abramoff added.
Among the reforms promoted by Sunlight is a requirement that all lobbyists should be registered. Currently, only those who spend more than 20 percent of their time lobbying are required to do so.
How is the foundation advancing its cause? The irony is striking; Sunlight has hired a lobbyist of its own.