Archive for October, 2013

The Schweizer Effect

Thursday, October 24th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

HE’S DONE IT again (Peter Schweizer of course), and so have they (60 Minutes that is).  On Sunday, the latter ran a 13-minute segment on the conservative author’s latest book, Extortion: How Politicians Extract Your Money, Buy Votes, and Line Their Own Pockets.  The piece covered the first and last of this triad, centering on the use of Leadership PACs as political slush funds.  And while it is both entertaining and informative – a combination television lacks more by the day – it could also have an impact on policy. Last time Schweizer wrote a book, it too was covered by 60 Minutes, directly resulting in passage of the STOCK Act.

How can one small story be so influential?  Timing helps: 60 Minutes airs immediately after professional football on Sundays and is advertised throughout the preceding game.  Public approval of Congress is also exceedingly low in the wake of an avoidable shutdown, rendering front offices especially vulnerable to constituent fury.  Execution is also key, and this story seems to strike the perfect pitch of indignation, the kind of indignation that would actuate a blizzard of calls to Congress.  Hopefully it works.

From Tinseltown To K Street

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013 by James Cameron

HOLLYWOOD AND POLITICS aren’t strangers by any stretch, and lately they’ve been getting even cozier.  As The Hill reported last week, lobbyists are increasingly using the allure of Hollywood to get the attention of politicians, using advance movie screenings and meetings with movie stars to bring attention to key policy issues.

Although groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (headed by former Sen. Chris Dodd) have long used movie screenings as an advocacy tool, other groups are beginning to catch on, especially when a film can be used to call attention to specific policy points.

The American Gaming Association, for example, frames the upcoming film Runner Runner, which portrays the seedy underside of offshore gambling, as a “cautionary tale” on the dangers of illegal online gambling.  Similarly, The Hill reports that Captain Phillips, which is currently in theaters, is being screened by the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots to highlight the issues faced by the Merchant Marine.  About 50 members of Congress were invited.

But are these screenings actually an effective way to curry favor with lawmakers?  Many groups are finding that they’re an extremely useful advocacy tool.  As The Hill reports, last years’ Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook was an incredible boon for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of a man with bipolar disorder attached a famous face to a crucial issue for the organization.

In a world with many competing distractions, lobbyists are finding that the glamour of Hollywood can still grab the attention of policymakers. And for advocacy groups, the next big film could be their big break.

Association TRENDS Previews “Factors of Influence”

Monday, October 14th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

ASSOCIATION TRENDS, another division of Columbia Books, has published a preview of its annual report titled “Factors of Influence of Lobbying Firms.”  From the article:

Since 2010, Association TRENDS has been performing an annual analysis of government affairs firms on several “factors of influence” to help determine which firms are the most influential with respect to public policy….Government affairs firms were scored on 12 factors of influence that we believe contribute to the firm’s overall level of influence, including conventional metrics, such as total income and number of clients, as well as a host of more robust metrics, some of which are detailed in this article.

Van Scoyoc, Podesta, and Cassidy & Associates feature on this year’s list of top scoring firms.  See who else made the list  here.

McCutcheon vs. FEC: 9 Arguments

Thursday, October 10th, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

MANY WILL HAVE learned by now that oral arguments for McCutcheon vs. FEC took place on Tuesday, but fewer will have fully digested their contents.  There are resources to help with this, most notably the award-winning SCOTUSblog, which has graciously posted its “Plain English” interpretation of the day’s debates. Here are the court’s arguments further filtered into bite-size pieces (roughly 30 words each), and therefore extra conducive to digestion.  Note the dialogue that Chief Justice Roberts has with himself.

AYE denotes arguments in favor of the plaintiff’s position that aggregate limits are unconstitutional. NAY denotes the opposite. Finally, “the $3.5 million scenario” I refer to below alludes to a popular argument posed by advocates of aggregate limits.  The argument goes something like this: biennial aggregate limits – currently set at $123,200 total for both candidate and other committees – effectively limits the number of candidates and PACs to which any given donor can give.  If aggregate limits were abandoned, donors would be free to max out to every member of the House and Senate, every political party, etc., which would allow up to $3.5 million in donations.  Implied in the exposition of this scenario is the apparently unwelcome idea that those who can afford to part with $3.5 million – to say nothing of those who have $3.5 million – will possess extraordinary power in an electoral system devoid of aggregate limits.

AYE: The $3.5 million scenario (see above) would have a negligible effect on overall political spending. Even with aggregate limits in place, $1.5 billion was spent in 2010 alone – Scalia

NAY: $3.5 million goes into $1.5 billion 428 times. So in Scalia’s scenario, the country would essentially be run by less than 500 rich people – Solicitor General Don Verrilli

AYE: The $3.5 million scenario is implausible given the number of regulations currently within the FEC framework that restrict earmarking and proliferation – Erin Murphy, attorney for the plaintiff, Shaun McCutcheon.

NAY: Aggregate limits foster democratic participation because they force candidates to seek support from many donors (as opposed to a few rich donors) – Ginsburg

AYE: Aggregate limits contribute to an inconsistency in campaign finance law, because donors face no limits elsewhere, notably in how much they can fund their own PAC – Scalia

NAY: Abolishing aggregate limits would allow donors to effectively shirk individual limits, which are not being tested by the court – Roberts

AYE: Aggregate limits impose an arbitrary restriction on the number of candidates a single donor can support. Currently that limit is nine. To say that the tenth contribution would have a corrupting influence is to make a groundless argument – Roberts

AYE: Along these same lines, aggregate limits force donors to make an undesirable choice between one candidate and another – Roberts

NAY: The absence of aggregate limits would create super donors who will then be owed “special treatment” by political parties – Kagan

Buying Citizenship: Lobbyists Back EB-5 Program

Friday, October 4th, 2013 by James Cameron

BECOMING A PERMANENT resident of the United States is often a difficult and time-consuming process—that is, unless you’ve got the cash.  The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program was established by Congress in 1990 to encourage foreign investment in the United States.  Under the program, investors are offered permanent residency if they spend $500,000 to $1 million on projects or business in the United States and, in the process, create at least ten jobs.

The problem? As The Hill reports, U.S. companies - most notably GreenTech, the electric car company started by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe - are using the program to attract foreign capital.  GreenTech allegedly “guarantee[d] returns” for EB-5 investors, which has attracted unwanted media (and regulatory) attention. Even worse, in July, The Monitor, a regional Texas newspaper, reported that the FBI raided a McAllen, Texas company that exploited the EB-5 program to create a Ponzi scheme in which the investment money was used to buy luxury goods and pay off legal settlements for wealthy Mexicans who sought to fast-track their residency in the United States.  Disturbing, yes, but is this an isolated case or is the EB-5 program ripe for exploitation?

Lobbyists argue the former.  The Hill notes that McAuliffe’s company would likely not have come under such extensive scrutiny if McAuliffe weren’t embroiled in a tense gubernatorial race. Further, lobbyists argue that the program maintains strict regulatory standards, and say that they welcome even tougher oversight. Further, the EB-5 trade group Association to Invest in USA claims that the program has so far attracted $2.2 billion in GDP to the U.S. economy and supported 28,000 jobs between 2010 and 2011.

There’s a lot of money at stake for lobbyists and investors alike, and The Hill reports that both have begun a push to renew the program before it expires in 2015. If the program isn’t renewed by then, lobbyists fear that Congressional gridlock will mean the end of the program.  While the government is shutdown, lobbyists have only to hope that the regulatory questions EB-5 has raised will subside. In the meantime, they will continue to trumpet the program’s successes with an eye toward 2015.

Shutdown Bears Mixed Results for Lobbyists

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 by Geoffrey Lyons

THOSE CURIOUS ABOUT the shutdown have an abundance of stories on which to feast. Fear mongers and masochists alike can delight in the prospects of uninspected meat or undisclosed campaign donations. Everyone else can find ample relief in the triumphant storming of a barricaded WWII memorial by indignant vets.

But what can one learn of lobbyists?  How’s the “influence industry” faring?

The beltway media appears not to be the surest source. One paper reports that as a result of the shutdown “…lobbyists are preparing for the fact they may have lots of time on their hands.”  The article quotes lobbyist David Urban, who “said the latest fight over spending are [sic.] throwing a wrench in K Street’s bread and butter work…” The same paper – same reporter even – writes two days later that “…even a shutdown can’t put a stop to K Street lobbying.”

Attempts at a clear conception of what’s really going on are further rent by such opposing headlines as “Government Shutdown Halts Lobbyist Activity” and “No shutdown for K Street as advocates blitz Capitol.”

Yet overall, the reporting itself isn’t to blame; many of these articles paint a subtle picture of how K St. is dealing with the shutdown.  It’s the headlines and sweeping generalizations that are the source of confusion, both of which tend to corrupt nuanced analysis.  Alas, that’s journalism.

So how, once and for all, is K St. coping with the shutdown?  It depends who you ask on K St.  Are lobbyists being kept busy?  Some, yes; some, not so much.  The shutdown provides yet another moment in which one must reflect on whether the use of catch-all terms like “K St.” (meaning more than just the street) sufficiently capture reality.  In this case, they clearly don’t.