On a mild evening last September, Citigroup lobbyists mingled with South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn at a rooftop reception — complete with miniature putting greens — as the company hosted a party to honor the third most powerful Democrat in the House and raise money for one of his favorite golf charities.
Health insurers and hospitals, meanwhile, are donating millions to help build an institute in Boston to celebrate the career of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is attempting to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Despite a ban on gifts to lawmakers and limits on campaign contributions, lobbyists and groups that employ them can spend unlimited money to honor members of Congress or donate to non-profits connected to them or their relatives. The public — until now — had little insight into the scope of this largely hidden world of special-interest influence.
Under ethics rules passed in 2007, lobbyists for the first time last year had to report any payment made for an event or to a group connected to a lawmaker and other top federal officials.
USA TODAY undertook the first comprehensive analysis of the lobbying reports and found 2,759 payments, totaling $35.8 million, were made in 2008. The money went to honor 534 current and former lawmakers, almost 250 other federal officials and more than 100 groups, many of which count lawmakers among their members.
The total cost is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. government spends to operate Yellowstone National Park each year.
Most of the money — about $28 million — went to non-profit groups, some with direct ties to members of Congress. In two cases, USA TODAY found, the donations to non-profits associated with a member of Congress came in response to a personal appeal for funds from the lawmaker.
"It's another example of the many pockets of a politician's coat," says Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. The spending amounts to an "end-run" around campaign-finance laws "that are designed to limit the appearance of undue influence," she says.
The money came from companies, trade associations and labor groups that lobby Congress and the government on a range of issues, from seeking a share of last year's $700 billion financial bailout package to trying to shape the debate on climate change.
The donations cover various activities — from a golf tournament that raises money for a lawmaker's non-profit to gifts to the alma mater of a powerful House committee chairman.
"You can still have a gala or something or the other for a charity and earn some favor with members of Congress, which is what the gift ban was put in place to avoid," says Dan Danner, CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business and a veteran Washington lobbyist.
The spending demonstrates the subtle ways that special-interest groups try to sway lawmakers, without making "something as crass as a payoff," says Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission official.
He credits Congress for mandating the disclosure of the gifts and giving the public another view of the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.
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