During my four-month stint as a member of the Clean Up Washington team, there has been no shortage of ethics and lobbying scandals dominating the political scene.
Things frequently border on the ridiculous, such as Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s bribe menu or Rep. William Jefferson’s (D-La.) cash in the freezer. From an outside activist point of view, it’s often hard to imagine how these things happen. Well, last Friday I got a look at how easy it is.
A friend of mine invited me to an annual dinner reception for Washington State residents who now live in the District. The event was packed with nearly 800 Capitol Hill staffers, activists and, yes, some lobbyists too. The $49 ticket price didn’t raise my suspicion until a Senate staffer told me a lobbyist had purchased her ticket. A $49 ticket…sounds like a good way to avoid the $50 gift limit for members of Congress and staff.
As the night wore on, someone mentioned that the dinner was known for its generous raffle prizes. I paid my dollar to enter and waited to hear ticket number 1401. The raffle was large and well funded, with almost 80 prizes all worth more than $100. Finally, prize 71 came up, and I won!
Inside the prize envelope, I found a card with the logo of Denny Miller Associates on the front and this message inside:
“Please enjoy compliments of Denny Miller Associates a Nordstroms gift certificate.”
Even in my great enthusiasm something didn’t seem right, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was a few minutes later before it clicked: I had just accepted a gift from a lobbyist.
Making matters worse, this wasn’t just any lobbyist, but the lobbyist who gave the fourth most money to members of Congress over the last eight years as detailed in the most recent Public Citizen report on lobbying. I had spent nearly a day researching Denny Miller and his monetary ties to Congress for this report, and here I was taking his money myself.
What struck me most was lobbyists’ ingenuity for finding new ways to use money to buy influence. While it is illegal for Denny Miller Associates to give a congressional staffer gifts valued at more than $50, it’s just fine to donate more expensive gifts (with the company name and logo prominently displayed, of course) to a raffle attended by the same staffer.
I have come to realize that money will always find a way to wield influence in Washington. But we can control it with reform measures – ones much stronger than the toothless laws passed this spring, of course – with the ultimate reform being public financing of campaigns. Continued good luck to our Corruption Watchdogs in hammering these issues home in the coming months leading up to the midterm elections!