President Barack Obama has long vowed to “take on” federal lobbyists, swearing off their campaign cash, curtailing access to his administration, and lately, directing his Presidential Inaugural Committee to reject their donations.
“We've always relied on each other, not Washington lobbyists or corporate interests, to build our campaign,” he wrote to supporters after launching his re-election campaign.
While Obama has banned donations to his second inaugural celebration from lobbyists, no such prohibition exists on donations from the corporations that employ them.
Donate they have: Obama’s inaugural festivities Monday are bankrolled by several of the nation’s most powerful corporate lobbying forces, which have collectively spent at least $158.6 million on lobbying since the president first took office, a Center for Public Integrity review of congressional disclosures indicates.
(A new list of sponsors current through Saturday pushes the total to $283 million, please see update.)
The ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, perhaps fittingly, falls squarely on the third anniversary of one of the most notable political influence developments in U.S. history — the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision — which Obama decried as a “huge victory” for special interests and their lobbyists and a “powerful blow to our efforts to rein in corporate influence.”
Chief among corporate inaugural donors: AT&T Inc., Microsoft Corp., energy giant Southern Co., biotechnology firm Genentech and health plan manager Centene Corp. Together, more than 300 registered lobbyists worked on the five companies’ behalf to influence legislation and government policy, according to their latest federal filings covering January through September.
Among numerous other influence efforts, Southern Co. lobbied the Executive Office of the President to curtail environmental regulations. AT&T pressed the Treasury Department to extend research and development tax credits and lobbied heavily — and unsuccessfully — to win regulatory approval of a merger with rival T-Mobile. Microsoft targeted the Justice Department, Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Copyright Office for support in strengthening online piracy and intellectual property regulations.
Together, the companies last year hired a constellation of K Street’s top lobbying firms to supplement in their own in-house advocates. The firms include Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Alston & Bird, BGR Group, Capitol Counsel, Cassidy & Associates, Crossroads Strategies, Patton Boggs, Prime Policy Group, Van Scoyoc Associates and Wiley Rein.
Former members of Congress and high-ranking state politicians now employed by the influence industry pepper their ranks. They include Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; Sens. John Breaux, D-La., Jim Slattery, D-Neb. and Don Nickles, R-Okla.; Reps. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., Jim McCrery, R-La. and Henry Bonilla, R-Texas; and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican.
Second term, no limits
Obama banned corporate contributions to the committee organizing his first inauguration and limited individual donations to $50,000. But for his second inauguration — a somewhat scaled-down affair expected to attract hundreds of thousands fewer revelers — most corporations and individuals are allowed to contribute unlimited amounts of money.
For both inaugurals, Obama barred contributions from political action committees, foreign governments, political parties, registered foreign agents or anyone under the age of 16 and federally registered lobbyists.
The committee is also not accepting individual or corporate sponsorships and companies that haven’t yet repaid Troubled Asset Relief Program funds are likewise blacklisted.
The inaugural committee released a statement in response to questions about the shift in contribution policies.
“The inaugural is a civic event and our guidelines aren’t just consistent with the law — they are consistent with the president’s commitment to transparency and to reducing the influence of PACs and lobbyists in Washington.”
The inaugural committee, which fundraises for and coordinates events including the inaugural parade, concerts, official balls and a prayer service, has maintained a twice-updated list of contributors on its website.
As of early Friday, it included eight corporations, although that list may soon grow.
Other businesses sponsoring the inaugural include United Therapeutics Corp., a pharmaceutical firm; Financial Innovations, Inc., a marketing firm that produced Obama campaign promotional products and Stream Line Circle LLC, which is controlled by Jon Stryker, a businessman and gay rights activist who last year donated $2 million to pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action.
Stryker Corp., a medical products company of which Stryker is a minority owner, has spent more than $816,000 on federal-level lobbying since Obama became president, including lobbying the White House against a medical device tax, federal disclosures show.
The roughly 1,000-name online list, which the committee says is slated to again be updated Friday, provides significantly less information than a similar list published online by Obama’s 2009 inaugural committee, which wrote of its desire to “provide the most open and accessible inauguration in history” and the president’s “commitment to change business as usual in Washington.”
Current inaugural policy also illustrates the sometimes wild swings in donor disclosure levels from inaugural to inaugural, which is largely determined by the committee itself, not the federal government.
While it’s known which companies and individuals are making contributions to support the event, how much they gave remains a mystery. Nor does the inaugural committee provide information beyond a company or person’s name. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to confirm the identities of contributors such as “Timothy Adams,” “Michael Johnson” and “Ryan Smith.”
Gone for Obama is the voluntary, pro-inaugural disclosure of donors’ location, Zip codes, occupations and employers — disclosure levels somewhat akin to those of President George W. Bush’s inaugural committees.
Don’t wait up late for Obama’s information, either. His committee isn’t required to provide a full and public accounting of its finances to the Federal Election Commission until 90 days after the inauguration.
‘Pleased to participate’
Some corporate inaugural donors say they are driven by civic responsibility, even though, arguably, their money could have greater political effect if given to super PACs or, for that matter, used to hire more lobbyists.
Southern Co.’s donation, which the company confirms is worth $100,000, was made to support “the celebration of the presidency and the activities of the inaugural committee,” spokesman Tim Leljedal said. “This is always a very special time for our country and we are pleased to participate.”
In a statement, Genentech said it aims to play a “positive role in the communities in which we live and operate” and “is proud to provide support for the presidential inauguration.”
Microsoft officials refused to comment about the company’s contribution, while officials for AT&T, Centene Corp., United Therapeutics, Financial Innovations Inc. and Stream Line Circle LLC did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Microsoft and AT&T are also federal contractors, as USA Today noted, and while it’s illegal for such contractors to influence federal elections, they’re not banned from donating to inaugural committees unless the committee itself does the banning.
Meanwhile, Obama’s inauguration donor policies and practices have managed to agitate an eclectic cross-section of politicos, liberal and conservative.
David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative activist group that prompted the eponymous Supreme Court decision, called the president’s decision to accept corporate cash “cynical” and “hypocritical.”
“He talks out of both sides of his mouth,” Bossie said. “I’ll be interested to look back to see what those companies are getting back in return.”
Some, at least, will receive an immediate return on their investment, as the committee confirmed that companies donating at least $1 million will receive a variety of inauguration day perks including choice viewing seats and inaugural ball tickets.
Corporations contributing at least $100,000 level also get ball tickets.
For Bruce Freed, president of the Center for Political Accountability, which aims to “bring transparency and accountability to corporate political spending,” corporations donating to Obama’s inaugural committee have “tremendous interests and influence and want to be heard in D.C.
“The administration,” Freed said, “should be very sensitive to opening up the door to corporate influence like this and the perception and risks associated with it.”
Monte Ward, president of the American League of Lobbyists and head of Advanced Capitol Consulting, says he’s “very disappointed” that Obama would accept unlimited contributions from corporations that lobby but not from individual lobbyists themselves.
Even commemorative inaugural tchotchkes — from a $20 baby onesie to a $7,500 medallion set featuring the likenesses of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — are off-limits to the registered influence industry set because paying for them is considered a donation.
“He’s still singling out lobbyists. It’s unfounded. But we wouldn’t expect anything less,” said Ward, ticking off Obama’s perceived affronts to professional lobbyists, from prohibiting them from volunteering on executive branch advisory committees to signing a presidential order tightly restricting their hiring for administration jobs.
The president’s battle against lobbyists – donations from corporate lobbying entities or not — doesn’t appear to be over, either.
In May, Obama campaign Chief Operating Officer Ann Marie Habershaw boasted that it didn’t accept “any money from Washington lobbyists or corporate-interest groups — not a dime. We don't want them owning any piece of this campaign or expecting any special consideration.”
And on the still-active Obama website Change.gov, a forerunner to WhiteHouse.gov, the ethics section prominently features a quotation from the president made while campaigning in 2007.
“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” Obama said. “I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists — and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president."