By Jay Kim
Among the numerous hotels in Washington, D.C., the Willard Hotel might be the most historic and beautiful. Built in 1850, it is often called “the crown of Pennsylvania Avenue” because it is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, right next to the White House.
In the luxurious French-style decorated lobby, there would always be gentlemen in suits conversing about something or other; most of these men were lawyers deeply involved in politics. Since they were always in the hotel lobby, people began to call them lobbyists.
As a member of Congress, I was visited by several lobbyists a day for various reasons. For example, when they would push for a program, they would bring short reports with detailed statistical data and the names of the civic organizations pushing for it as well. I have even had lobbyists bring in drafts of bills they wrote themselves.
Congressmen would often hold fundraisers aimed at lobbyists; I held several myself. I would send the invitations to the lobbyists that visited my office, as well as those related to me directly or indirectly, then would call them after a few days to request their attendance.
Talking about fundraising cannot occur in the Capitol or the congressional office buildings; they must always happen outside those buildings. Next to my office in the Cannon building was the office building of the Republican Party headquarters and a four-story building for receptions where Congressional Republicans would hold their fundraisers.
The building even had phone-booth size rooms to make the calls inviting lobbyists to fundraisers. Thirty attendees would be a big crowd for my fundraisers; even then, I’d have to diligently make calls personally a week before. My pride was hurt, since this felt like having to beg for money; however, since this is the easiest way to raise funds within the limit of the law, many Congressmen use this method.
One major problem is how to refuse the favors these donators ask later. The press enjoys investigating the relationship between lobbyists and Congressmen; even I think there is something doubtful about using lobbyists to raise political funds. This is the biggest reason why lobbyists are so expensive.
They can bring a check of up to $1,000, which should not be corporate but personal; even a small gathering of 30 people brings in $30,000 without much cost. Raising $30,000 in one’s own district would not only take a great deal of preparation, but would also cost about half that just to put together the fundraising event. This gives lobbyists a privileged right to visit the offices of certain Congressmen freely.
Once, I attended a Korean-American fundraiser in a luxurious hotel. They brought out all the stops, even inviting singers from Korea to perform. I had a great time, but after the event was over, it turned out that the event had only raised $30,000, while costing $40,000.
A newspaper reported that the event would have raised about $50,000, and I was accused of sweeping up all the money myself, but I could not bear to reveal the $10,000 loss.
Unlike presidential candidate fundraisers, where tickets cost $2,000 per person and $100,000 for the “golden table,” congressional fundraisers (at $200 per dinner ticket) can only raise money if at least 400 people attend the event. Out of the 400 attendees, 50 tend to be absent, and 50 actually attend free of charge.
Those that attend for free are mayors, city council members, local dignitaries, and members of the House and the Senate; i.e. people that I am grateful to for their attendance itself. I would have to prepare a report on my recent congressional activity, and visit each table to thank each person for attending the event.
I would also have to answer the sharp questions of reporters after the event, and worrying about these questions tended to ensure that I would not have a pleasant meal.
These fundraisers never brought much substance to offset the whole tiring ordeal; there were usually only 300 paid attendees, and much of the funds raised would go toward paying for the cost of the 50 free guests, tipping the hotel that held the event, getting gifts for volunteers, parking fees, and costs for meals, music, lighting, and other equipment. If half of the raised fund was left, the event was considered a big success.
Compare this with fundraising from lobbyists ― no dinner and speech preparation is necessary; the building to hold lobbyist events is owned by the Republican Party and only a nominal fee is necessary to use the premises; generally a few bottles of soda and plates of snacks would be enough.
Raising $30,000 from those 30 lobbyists would generally cost about $1,000 total. It’s a small wonder that lobbyists are allowed to visit Congressmen’s offices frequently, and a sobering reminder that politics can be influenced by money in the U.S. It’s always important how much money is raised.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. Congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).