February 10, 2011; Source: Roll Call | One way that special interests have cozied up to members of Congress over the years has been by making “charitable” donations to the nonprofits and foundations that members of Congress have created or have close ties with. Remember the charities affiliated with former Congressman Tom DeLay or former Senator Rick Santorum? Making a donation to their charities was an easy way to curry favor and get face time with them – without disclosing the donations or having the interactions with legislators counted as lobbying.
Now, according to Roll Call, lobbyists seem to be reducing their giving to members’ charities. In the last half of 2010, lobbyists donated or spent $10.4 million on Congressional charity activities compared to more than twice that amount for the last half of 2008. The amount of lobbyists’ giving to members’ charities has declined every six-month period since the end of 2008. Have lobbyists suddenly seen the light and begun to think twice about conducting all-but-lobbying under the cloak of charitable concern? Not entirely.
The reporting requirements that began in 2008 calling for lobbyists to disclose their charitable giving to members’ charities have probably had some effect. Sunshine does that. Some lobbyists may be giving more to independent, Congressional organizations and caucuses (such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus) that aren’t specifically linked to individual members and less to members’ personal foundations or eponymous scholarship funds.
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They have also found giving to presidential libraries to be a safer route, donating $17.5 million in 2010 compared to less than 10 percent of that in 2008. Perhaps as well, members themselves haven’t been following the DeLay Foundation model of tightly linked or controlled foundations. And there is the fact that since the last quarter of 2008, there has been a national recession, leading to leaner times even for lobbyists and their corporate or other special interest partners and backers.
Still Roll Callnotes a couple of members’ charities have continued to do well, notably the research and scholarship foundation of House Assistant Leader James Clyburn (25 donations totaling $354,000 for the last six months of 2010). Some members of the administration do well too. For example, charity events honoring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates attracted donations of $312,000 in the last half of 2010 from defense contractors, including $100,000 from IBM.
Big special interest charitable donors include Exxon Mobil, JP Morgan Chase, and Wal-Mart, each of which spent more than $500,000 on events honoring members of Congress in the last six months of 2010. Will Congress weaken the lobbying reporting requirements on their charitable donations for events and functions honoring members? Will a return to a more robust economy lead to higher levels of charitable spending by lobbyists? Only time will tell.—Rick Cohen