By quietly dropping a ban on direct donations from registered federal lobbyists and political action committees, the Democratic National Committee in February reopened the floodgates for corruption that Barack Obama had put in place in 2008.
Secret donors with major public-policy agendas were welcomed back in from the cold and showered with access and appreciation at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Major donors were offered “Family and Friends” packages, including suites at the Ritz-Carlton, backstage passes, and even seats in the Clinton family box. Corporate lobbyists like Heather Podesta celebrated the change, telling Time: “My money is now good.”
What was going on inside the convention hall was also reflected outside, at costly events sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, technology companies, for-profit colleges, pharmaceutical companies, and railway companies, to name a few.
Craig Holman, an elections financing expert at Public Citizen, said that the end of the lobbyist contribution ban as well as Congress’s 2014 termination of all remaining public financing of the party conventions has served to undermine democracy. “The implications of these changes are that we have opened up access to the parties and the conventions to just the very, very wealthy,” he said.
He pointed out that Congress originally passed the law to publicly finance presidential conventions after a 1972 scandal where President Richard Nixon terminated an anti-trust investigation eight days after the telecommunications company ITT donated heavily to that year’s Republican convention.
For the more than 1,900 Bernie Sanders delegates at the convention, the dependence on high-roller lobbyists was particularly galling. Sanders’s campaign was built on a simple promise: he would shun big-ticket fundraisers and corporate lobbyists in favor of a legion of small donors. And it worked. By the end of April 2016, Sanders’s campaign was actually raising more money than Clinton’s, which was welcoming support from corporate lobbyists and bundlers.
But an overwhelming majority of Democratic lawmakers we spoke to at the convention didn’t seem troubled by the rule change at all.
At a posh event hosted by The Atlantic and paid for by the American Petroleum Institute oil lobby, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, shrugged off concerns about the influence of special interest groups.
“I don’t know, you’ll have to ask the DNC on that,” he said in response to a question whether lifting the ban was the right move.
“Do you think that lobbyists have undue influence?” we followed up.
“I don’t know.”
“What about energy lobbyists? What about oil lobbyists?”
“What about ’em?”
“Do you think they have undue influence in the United States?”
“I think they’re just like teachers, like firemen, like everybody who contributes.”
“What about the Koch Brothers, who spent $400 million on an election?”
“You’ve gotta go talk to the Koch Brothers,” he replied, ending the conversation.
Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia offered a Willie Sutton justification for lifting the lobbying ban. “The lobbyists, that’s where the money is,” he said.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley made attacks on special interests a cornerstone of his short-lived Democratic presidential primary campaign — decrying Hillary Clinton’s “cozy relationship with Wall Street.” Just a few short months later, his concern about moneyed interests influencing the Democratic Party seem to have evaporated.
“I’m really kind of agnostic on it,” he said. “I really don’t care one way or another.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland ducked the question. “It’s above my paygrade,” he quipped.
Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said he would never have banned lobbyists like Obama did in the first place. “I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “It’s not a matter of wrong or right. It’s a matter of making sure we have the resources to put on a convention.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the chair of the DNC’s Host Committee, has refused to disclose donors to that committee until 60 days after the convention.
In an interview with The Intercept, Rendell insisted there was nothing wrong with keeping the committee’s donors secret until just a few weeks before the election, and he downplayed the influence of big donors. “I never made one decision where I was influenced by a campaign contribution,” he said.
“So why are lobbyists giving money to the DNC now again,” we asked. “Are they doing it just because they have extra money to give?”
“They want access,” he acknowledged.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan avoided the question. “At this point I want to focus on the basic issues. I’m in favor of getting money more and more out of politics,” he said. When we followed up by asking whether lobbyists should be able to fundraise for the DNC, he walked away.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California stopped to talk to us, but after hearing the subject, briskly walked away as a fleet of staffers blocked off access to her.
A staffer for Rep. Adam Schiff of California asked the subject of our interview question. She then informed her boss, who told her, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut said he was unconcerned with the policy shift. “Unfortunately, we’re in a world today where we have to raise private money,” he said. “I don’t get too concerned about who and what groups you take money from. It’s up to you.”
There were, however, a few dissenters to the new policy.
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said he favored the Obama-era ban. “I think the president had it right,” he told us.
When informed of the new policy, Rep. Jerry McErney of California was blunt. “Yeah, that’s probably a bad idea,” he said.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin said she wanted to see a return to of the ban. “That would be something that I would encourage,” she said.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut also objected to the change. “I think they should not have done that,” she said.
When informed that lobbyists could give six figures to the DNC, former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was taken aback.
“That’s wrong,” he said.