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Planet Money

When Lobbyists Pay To Meet With Congressmen

Originally published on Mon April 23, 2012 4:49 pm

Yesterday, we reported on the fundraisers that lobbyists hold for Congressmen every day in Washington. Today, we hear what happens inside those events. The stories are part of our series on money in politics.

At a typical event, there's a member of Congress and a member of his or her staff who is in charge of collecting the checks. This person is known as the fundraiser.

"The fundraiser is standing in the room, and the fundraiser has 35,000 bucks in checks sitting in her pocket right now," says Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist for the real estate industry. "And we're going to talk about public policy while we take the checks."

How much influence do those checks have over public policy?

Most of the time, checks don't by votes, Williams says. But they buy access. They buy an opportunity to make your case.

The rules are clear: Lobbyists use money from their political action committees to get access to lawmakers.

One time, Williams says, he took a couple clients to meet a Congressman when his PAC had fallen behind in its donations.

"I've put in two calls to your PAC director, and I haven't received any return phone calls," the Congressman said, according to Williams. "Now why am I taking this meeting?"

The minute he left the office, Williams called his PAC director, and she cut those checks.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

With the general election campaign gearing up, so too, is the fundraising needed to pay for it. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said yesterday it has just had its biggest fundraising quarter ever; raising almost $18 million since January.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Democrats say that overall, they have about a $30 million fundraising edge over the Senate Republicans. They'll need the money. The Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate but also have many more Senate seats that are up for election this year.

NEARY: This week, we've been talking about the places here in D.C. where that fundraising takes place. Ten or 20 people, mostly lobbyists, meet a lawmaker in a small conference room or private dining room somewhere in the capital.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook and Alex Blumberg, from our Planet Money Team, got the lobbyist perspective on how the fundraiser works and what the money buys.

ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: Typically at these events, there's a person who works for the congressman there, who's collecting the checks. That person is called a fundraiser.

ANDREA SEABROOK, BYLINE: The event is also a fundraiser. Jimmy Williams lobbied for many years for the real estate industry, and he explains what happens after you drop off your check.

JIMMY WILLIAMS: You sit around and you have a conversation with a member who's sitting at the head of the table or in the center of table, and everyone goes around as says I'm Jimmy Williams and I'm the lobbyist for the National Association of Realtors, or whatever it is.

And then you go and you say we care about keeping big, bad, evil banks out of real estate, and we care about the flood insurance program, which is great for coastal communities. But, you know, everybody does that. So the insurance guy - the lobbyist for the insurance industry, he does that. And the lobbyist for the accounting industry, she does that.

And by the way, the fundraiser is standing in the room, and the fundraiser has $35,000 bucks in checks sitting in her pocket right now, in her pocketbook. Oh and, we're going to talk about public policy while we take the checks.

BLUMBERG: And this is the question. How much influence over public policy are those checks having? Jimmy says that most of the time, the check will not buy a vote or an amendment. But, he says, to make your case, to get in front of the lawmaker, you need that check.

SEABROOK: People we talk to in this system said everyone understands these rules, you're going to cut checks from your PAC, you're political action committee, to get access to the lawmakers. But they tell us, the rules are rarely explicit. Although there are times, says Jimmy Williams. Like when he took a couple clients to one congressman's office.

WILLIAMS: They open up the door and the chief of staff said, can we talk to just you for one second, and then we can bring in the two constituents. And I said, sure, absolutely, not a problem. Walk in, they shut the door. The congressman is sitting behind his desk. He stands up, he shakes my hand, and says hey, Jimmy it's great to see you. And I said congressman, it's good to see you too.

He said, I've put in two calls to your PAC director, and I haven't received any return phone calls. Now why am I taking this meeting? And I thought to myself, this is great, because I've got two of my guys out here that are constituents of this congressman, who are now going to come in here, and they're going to make an ask of him to support a specific piece of legislation.

And what he has done, is he has warned me that if I don't take care of what my PAC director isn't doing, which is contributing to his campaign, then he's not going to help my guys.

SEABROOK: Jimmy said, the minute he left the office, he called his PAC director, and she cut those checks.

BLUMBERG: Without those checks, Jimmy Williams says, it's a lot harder to get the right people to hear your argument. And how can you influence policy, if no one listens to what you have to say?

I'm Alex Blumberg.

SEABROOK: And I'm Andrea Seabrook, NPR News.

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NEARY: Andrea and Alex worked on their money and politics project with This American Life from member station WBEZ.

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NEARY: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.