Fishing to be heard in D.C.

Oct 7, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Want to go fishing with an influential congressman?
A couple of thousand dollars can make it happen.
That’s what Eddie Fritts, National Association of Broadcasters president and CEO, and other top broadcast industry lobbyists proved last month, when they were wetting lines in the Florida Keys with Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
While Rep. Tauzin and the broadcasters were angling for bonefish, tarpon and snook in chartered johnboats, the congressman was also reeling in what one well-placed source estimated to be in excess of $50,000 for his Bayou Leader PAC-a special fund he uses to underwrite the campaigns of GOP colleagues and to shore up the support of other Republican leaders.
For the fun-loving Rep. Tauzin, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, it was yet another opportunity to mix business with pleasure.
Besides sunburns, what the about 30 fat-cat industry lobbyists said to have been on hand for the Sept. 20 to 21 event got was the kind of access to a powerful decision-maker that public-interest representatives can only dream about.
“This is not `bayou,”’ said Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog Center for Digital Democracy. “Billy Tauzin ought to change the name to the `bought you’ leader PAC.”
Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Rep. Tauzin, said the trip was not unusual. “We’re not doing anything that Denny Hastert, Dick Gephardt, Trent Lott or Tom Daschle aren’t doing,” he said. “We just like to think we do it a little more colorfully.”
Events like this are thanks to a loophole in the campaign finance law that allows lawmakers to create special political action committees to raise money to finance their parties and the election campaigns of colleagues-above and beyond the money that they’re allowed to raise for their individual campaigns.
That means that industry political action committees, such as NAB’s TARPAC, can give Rep. Tauzin up to $10,000 during each two-year campaign cycle for his personal campaign war chest, and another $10,000 to the leadership PAC. (According to the Center for Responsive Politics, TARPAC gave $10,000 to Rep. Tauzin’s personal campaign and another $7,000 to his leadership PAC during the last election cycle.)
Also under the rules, individual broadcasters are free to donate $2,000 to the congressman’s campaign and $10,000 to his leadership PAC every two years.
“It gives a congressman like Rep. Tauzin a way to raise even more money from many of the same interests that are already giving to his campaign, and it gives the donors another way to show their support,” said Steven Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. The lawmakers, in turn, can donate up to $10,000 of their leader PAC contributions to their own campaigns every two years. The rest of the money is supposed to be used to support their leadership positions, pay for fund-raising expenses and keep their parties in power.
“The contributions to colleagues and party are obviously an effort to keep the majority and create good will,” Mr. Weiss said. “They do it primarily to enhance their standing with their party and colleagues.”
According to Mr. Weiss, Rep. Tauzin’s leader PAC is one of the top GOP fund-raisers on Capitol Hill. It reported a war chest of $317,000 at the end August, after making donations of $235,645 to other lawmakers this year.
At deadline NAB was declining comment, and Emily Shaw, the PAC’s treasurer, had not returned telephone calls. But Mr. Johnson said the PAC also offers fund-raising events around hunting trips, golf outings, Cajun cookouts, Mardi Gras activities and other events that suit the congressman’s leisure-time druthers.
A well-placed source said one way to get an invite to a Bayou Leader PAC fund-raiser is to seek an audience with Rep. Tauzin on an industry issue. But Mr. Johnson said there was no link between contributions and favors from the lawmaker.
“We don’t strong-arm anyone into contributing to our campaigns,” Mr. Johnson said. “Frankly, the only thing anyone can expect for a campaign contribution is a free autographed photograph.
“Being from Louisiana, we’re always looking for any excuse to throw a party. If someone doesn’t want to come, trust me, there’s a long line waiting behind them.”