Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges

The lobbying industry has donated $545,173 to 2020 presidential campaigns with nearly 80 percent going to Democratic candidates, even as many of those hopefuls vow not to take donations from lobbyists.

Over $114,498 of that has gone to President Donald Trump’s re-election while the rest, $430,675, has been given to Democrats, including those who have dropped out of the race, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. 

The total is based on the Federal Election Commission data released on Oct. 16., through third-quarter 2019 fundraising.

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The numbers paint a complicated picture. Democratic candidates and their progressive allies in the current cycle have put new scrutiny on lobbyists as well as on taking money from other special interest or corporate groups. But that hasn’t completely stopped the flow of money to candidates and campaigns.

K Street’s top ranks are filled with former Democrats, many with ties to the candidates. And watchdog groups say that while the focus is on federally registered lobbyists, donations from others tied to the industry, such as state- and local-level lobbyists, often trickle through.

“The states are an area that are ripe with influence. In part because it takes lower dollar amounts to influence and people are usually making contributions at a lower level,” Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a watchdog group The Hill.

The Center for Responsive Politics number includes state and local lobbyists, lobbying firm’s political action committees (PACs) as well as people who work at lobbying firms who are not registered – including support staff and lawyers. Lobbyists who are in-house at a corporation are not included in the count.

If a contribution from a federally registered lobbyist was returned by the campaign, it would be subtracted from the calculation, according to the group.

The over $500,000 figure includes both donations to campaigns and money directed to outside groups, like candidates’ political action committees. 

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According to the center’s data, former Vice President Joe Biden has received over $90,000 from the lobbying industry, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has received over $75,000, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has received over $30,000, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has received over $30,000.

“Vice President Biden does not accept contributions from federal lobbyists and has been a leader throughout his career in working to eliminate the influence of big money in politics,” campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told The Hill.

Also, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has received over $20,000, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has received over $16,000 and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) have all received over $10,000.

Just over $2,000 has gone to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and just under $600 to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), while businessman Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson have all accepted over $250. 

The Gabbard campaign told The Hill they will return the contributions.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We’re planning to return the $594 in lobbyist contributions and going forward our policy will be to return any lobbyist contributions over $50. We will rely on the reporting by Open Secrets to help us track this information,” a spokesman told The Hill.

The Buttigieg campaign said it was committed to ensuring campaign finance reforms to crack down on special interest money. 

“As President, Pete will enact critical campaign finance reforms to restore faith in our Democracy, including strengthening the FEC and pushing to overturn Citizens United and Buckley v Valeo,” a spokesman told The Hill.

In response, Warren’s campaign cited their plan, introduced in September, that would ban lobbyists from making political contributions, bundling donations or hosting fundraisers for candidates. Currently, her campaign refuses donations from lobbyists to the federal government and also from foreign agents.

Sanders’ campaign noted that they don’t accept donations from corporate lobbyists. The senator introduced a plan in October to would ban donations from federal lobbyists and corporations.

And, Williamson’s campaign said they evaluate contributions on a case by case basis.

Other campaigns declined to comment for the story or did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Unlike most Democrats, Trump, has not shied away from corporate money. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, the only other Republican presidential contender other than Trump counted in the tally, has accepted over $200.

Still, the donations from those connected to the lobbying industry as a whole pale in comparison to political contributions from other controversial industries. 

The oil and gas industry has donated over $4.5 million on the 2020 election, over $4 million of that going to Trump alone and the pharmaceuticals and health products industry has donated $1.7 million with over $450,000 going to Trump, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Democrats who have pledged not to take money from lobbyists in Washington have returned checks in many cases, but that doesn’t often extend to donations from state and local lobbyists or from people who work at lobbying firms.

State and local lobbyists are seen as different because they do not directly lobby the president or Congress. But critics say that state and local lobbyists are still prominent in the advocacy space. 

“Certainly as we think about decisions that campaigns are making or campaign finance rules that we want, we are paying equal attention to money spend in the federal and state level,” said Gilbert from Public Citizen.

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Gilbert said that as Democratic candidates crack down on special interest money the field of acceptable donors will also narrow.

“Just as we first saw no pharma money or no oil money, and then it became no corporate money. Its logical that the next step might be no state lobbyists,” Gilbert said.

Others noted that optics of accepting campaign contributions from state and local lobbyists are less controversial.

“Candidates understand that contributions from lobbyists are a valid and regulated method of political engagement. This is why we see them taking funds from those at the state and local level, which is sometimes less scrutinized than federal-level campaign contributions,” said Kelly Memphis, manager of government relations and stakeholder engagement for the Public Affairs Council, an association for public affairs professionals.

Memphis also questioned the criticism over accepting lobbying money.

“Candidates often refuse dollars from federal lobbyists and national corporate PACs to keep up appearances in line with the overblown national narrative that these types of contributions are part of a broken system,” Memphis said.

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But those views have taken hold in the Democratic field, with many candidates proposing tough reforms to cut off lobbyist donations.

Even new entrants are vowing not to take donations from Washington lobbyists. 

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign will not be taking contributions from lobbyists, according to the campaign, and Bloomberg, a billionaire, is self-funding entirely.

Fellow billionaire Tom Steyer is also against taking lobbyist money.

“Tom doesn’t take money from lobbyists because he’s proposing real structural reforms to break the corporate stranglehold in Washington, like term limits for Members of Congress and national referendums,” spokesman Benjamin Gerdes told The Hill.

The campaign for Gov. Deval Patrick’s (D-Mass.), other new candidate, did not respond to a request for comment.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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