Report: Reclaiming Our Democracy

The Lobbyist's Last Laugh

How K Street Lobbyists Would Benefit From The McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Bill
Released by: U.S. PIRG Education Fund

No place is more infamous than K Street, Washington D.C. Home to powerhouses such as Akin Gump and PricewaterhouseCoopers,1 K Street is not only a breeding ground for influential lobbyists and political consultants, but the place where beltway insiders craft public policy and broker thousands of deals. Yet, despite giving almost a quarter of a million dollars to candidates, Political Action Committees (PACs) and parties in the last election cycle, K Street did not mount a campaign against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill as it went to the floor of the Senate earlier this year. The reason lies in the fine print of the bill.

The McCain-Feingold bill seeks to limit the undue political access and influence granted to wealthy special interests. At the heart of the bill is a ban on the unlimited “soft money” contributions to political parties, a modest yet laudable reform that could potentially curb the spending of some moneyed interests. However, lobbyists operate under a different form of currency -- "hard money."

Hard money can be given directly to candidates and has the potential to be much more corrupting to the democratic process than soft money. Large hard money contributors can collectively determine which candidates run for office and win elections. Voters are often forced to choose between two candidates preselected by a minority of wealthy hard money donors. Soft money, on the other hand, is given to parties, not candidates, and only comes into play in a handful of high-profile races. It has little to no role in primary elections, which is the place where many grassroots candidates lose or are forced out of the race by opponents backed by large hard money donors.

The McCain-Feingold bill does nothing to reduce the influence that large hard money donors have on election outcomes. In fact, during Senate debate, the bill was amended to include higher limits on hard money contributions to candidates and parties. Because of these increases in the bill, it is no wonder lobbying firms kept quiet during the debate. They, and the clients they represent, are among the chief beneficiaries of the legislation.

This study is the first of its kind to track individual contributions from lobbyists employed by the top firms in the country. While limited in its scope, the findings expose how lobbying firms and other moneyed interests use the hard money system for political gain and should raise a red flag for legislators considering proposals to increase existing hard money contribution limits.

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