Lobbyists get power access via caucuses

ByABC News
July 24, 2009, 12:38 AM

WASHINGTON -- Lobbyists and businesses that employ them donated $5.8 million last year to foundations affiliated with congressional groups, a USA TODAY analysis of federal lobbying data shows.

Nearly all of it $5.7 million went to non-profit groups connected to the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, according to the analysis.

Under congressional rules, the caucuses face limits on how much public money they can use to support their activities. They also are barred from using private funds to operate. However, nothing stops lobbyists from writing big checks to the non-profits connected to caucuses.

Giving to a caucus-related group is a way to earn favor with a large number of lawmakers, said Sheila Krumholz, of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Lobbyists "get to rub shoulders with lawmakers and their families in a relaxed comfortable atmosphere," she added. "It's all conducive to building cordial relationships that you can later cash in on."

The 42-member Black Caucus has seen its influence grow since the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007. Its members include four committee chairmen. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation is an independent organization, which holds policy forums and provides scholarships, internships and fellowships. Several caucus members serve on its board.

Foundation spokeswoman Muriel Cooper said the donations reflect corporate support for the foundation's work, not a lobbying effort. "Lobbyists would have the same opportunity to mingle with members walking down the hall of the Russell building," she said, referring to a Senate building.

Esther Aguilera, the president of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, said lawmakers do not raise funds for the group.

Of the 257 congressional caucuses, nine affiliated organizations received donations from lobbyists or groups that employ them, the analysis showed.

Drugmaker AstraZeneca, which spent $4.3 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies last year, was among the biggest contributors, donating $300,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in 2008 and $115,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.