Senate's Lion in Winter

Posted: Feb 23, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- The cream of Washington's lobbyists gather next Monday evening on Capitol Hill, paying at least $1,000 apiece, to listen to Sen. Ted Stevens, the doughty and defiant president pro tempore of the Senate. In the climate of lobbyist and earmark reform, they will hear plenty.

The 82-year-old Stevens put his fabled temper on display as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday when he browbeat a federal bureaucrat for diminishing largesse to his beloved Alaska. Stevens, the Senate's senior Republican, bemoaned the assault on the earmark, an instrument he has refined -- enabling the individual lawmaker to override the executive branch's control of spending.

Sen. John McCain has described a symbiotic relationship between lobbyists and earmarks breeding a climate of corruption. A freewheeling lobbyist can enrich himself and his friends, bypassing regular governmental and legislative procedures, by earmarking funds in legislation as he maximized money for Alaska. Nobody has accused Stevens of any part in this scandalous system. But he is the Senate's lion in winter, standing athwart reform.

Stevens showed his distress, in stentorian tones, at last Thursday's Commerce Committee hearing. The witness was Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- a federal agency that has been the uncomplaining beneficiary of Stevens's earmarks. But Lautenbacher now has felt Stevens's wrath.

The senator complained that President Bush's effort at some control over federal spending had discriminated against Alaska. "It looked like someone had sort of a heavy pencil in Alaska," complained Stevens. Lautenbacher's protest of "very severe budget restrictions" did not satisfy him.

Stevens filed for divorce from the NOAA after a long, happy marriage: "Admiral, you can take me off the side of being a supporter of your agency and put me down as one that is really critical for the balance of this year." In the past, Stevens would brush away budget restraint by earmarking. But he told Lautenbacher last week to "go back" to the Office of Management and Budget and "tell them [about] the current policy of not having the ability to earmark."

If that sounded like Stevens in retreat on earmarking, he is not taking a step away from lobbyists. Although lobbyists running fund-raisers for members of Congress has become common, Stevens's Feb. 27 reception at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is extraordinary. The host committee, as of last week, consisted of 44 members. All but one is a registered lobbyist. (The exception, Fred Wahl, owns a boat-building company.)

The host list includes such big-time lobbyists as Phil Ruter of Boeing and Ken W. Cole of General Motors. Other corporations contributing are Lockheed Martin, American Airlines, Northrop Grumman, Time Warner, Union Pacific, Disney and Textron. The scope of industries represented includes aviation, defense, telecom, insurance, paper, broadcasting and railroads.

The money raised goes not directly to Stevens (who is not up for re-election until 2008) but to his leadership political action committee, Northern Lights PAC. The funds it raises are distributed to other Republican candidates, enhancing Stevens's influence. Since he would be able to raise little or nothing for Northern Lights back in Alaska, such leadership PACs have to rely almost entirely on lobbyists.

As pressure for lobbyist reform rose last month, Republican Rep. Ray LaHood announced he would stop raising money through lobbyists. That produced a pause in lobbyist-run fund-raisers, but not for long. This is money-raising season, with a lobbyist-run event nearly every day. Stevens was one of seven senatorial sponsors last Thursday in NRSC headquarters at an event raising money for Sen. John Ensign's re-election campaign in Nevada this year. His hosts included lobbyists for Verizon, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Alltel, Clear Channel Communications, Comcast and National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Many lobbyists, forced to raise funds for members of Congress they barely know to gain admittance to the lawmaker's office, had hoped LaHood would set an example. Instead, congressional action is needed. Bob Walker, a former influential House Republican and now a major lobbyist, would ban all leadership PACs and prohibit registered lobbyists from contributing to individual members of Congress. That's real reform that would have prohibited Monday's event for Ted Stevens.