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Yesterday, we reported on the fundraisers that lobbyists hold for Congressmen every day in Washington. Today, we hear what happens inside those events. The stories are part of our series on money in politics.
At a typical event, there's a member of Congress and a member of his or her staff who is in charge of collecting the checks. This person is known as the fundraiser.
"The fundraiser is standing in the room, and the fundraiser has 35,000 bucks in checks sitting in her pocket right now," says Jimmy Williams, a former lobbyist for the real estate industry. "And we're going to talk about public policy while we take the checks." How much influence do those checks have over public policy?
Most of the time, checks don't by votes, Williams says. But they buy access. They buy an opportunity to make your case.
The rules are clear: Lobbyists use money from their political action committees to get access to lawmakers.
One time, Williams says, he took a couple clients to meet a Congressman when his PAC had fallen behind in its donations.
"I've put in two calls to your PAC director, and I haven't received any return phone calls," the Congressman said, according to Williams. "Now why am I taking this meeting?"
The minute he left the office, Williams called his PAC director, and she cut those checks.
Not surprisingly, campaign contributions flow to members of the committees that big donors are really interested in — like, say, the ways and means committee, which oversees the tax code.
This makes a huge difference to lawmakers, who need a steady stream of donations to fund their re-election campaigns.
Both parties rank each committee for its fundraising potential. There are lists of the A, B, and C committees, and fundraising targets for the members. Those lists aren't public. Many lawmakers say these lists exist, but no one would give one to us.
Being a committee chairman carries huge power in Congress. Not surprisingly, it also leads to a huge fundraising boost. But the lawmakers who land these spots are expected to raise lots of money, and turn it over to the party, which spreads it around to other members.
"Where much is given, much is required," says Rep. Jeff Flake. "You're given dues, assessments, and if you're a senior member on committees that lend themselves to fundraising, and you're either a ranking member or a chairman, then you're expected to raise a lot of money. When you come up every two years to either retain your position or move to another committee, those things are certainly taken into account"