WASHINGTON — Congress has devised its own form of March Madness, using the NCAA men's basketball tournament and other spring sports events as popular fundraisers.
This weekend and over the next few weeks lawmakers will host donors at a Sweet 16 basketball doubleheader, at baseball's spring training and Opening Day games, and at pro hockey and basketball games.
Price of admission: Often $1,000 and up.
Ethics watchdogs say such events give lobbyists lengthy access to lawmakers and a chance to bond in an informal, entertaining setting that other citizens can't match. Lobbyists counter that they're just doing their jobs, the fundraisers are legal and contributions fully disclosed, and they get to know legislators in a casual setting.
Invitations from lawmakers obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, an independent watchdog group, offer previews of coming events:
- Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., plans to host a three-day "All Sports Weekend," starting Friday, featuring two days of golf, a Phoenix Suns basketball game, spring training and "all meals." Contribution: $2,500 per person.
"Sporting events are ideal for lobbyists," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, an independent congressional watchdog. "You get to talk to the member and root for the congressman's team. It's a lot better than going to an opera, where all you can do is sit and listen."
Such events give pay-to-play insiders a chance to chat with influential lawmakers that most Americans don't have, Holman said. Since most games last at least two to three hours, and feature timeouts or breaks between innings, there's lots of get-to-know-you time.
Another thing that bothers the watchdogs is how many lawmakers list their congressional committees on the invitation. It's a pointed reminder of where their power lies, in case lobbyists with business before those committees have forgotten. Payne's invitation lists his committees, and Becerra's invitation says he's the Democratic caucus vice chair. Deutch and Wasserman Schultz don't mention their House of Representatives titles or committees.
Lobbyists say the games are valuable opportunities for them to do their jobs.
"Fundraisers give lobbyists a chance to talk about issues. A sports event in a skybox gives you a chance to form a more personal relationship," said Howard Marlowe, the president of the American League of Lobbyists.
"You have the time to sit back, in a smaller setting, and ask how the family is or talk sports. It's all part of being a lobbyist."
Part of the lobbyists' dilemma these days is that gift bans that went into effect last year make it harder to form such relationships. Lobbyists can't even buy lawmakers a cup of coffee. Marlowe argues that the ban has taken away a valuable tool, the ability to talk outside the frenetic office environment.
Lawmakers firmly reject the idea that anyone buys special access or that sports events are any different from any other campaign event.
"Congressman Clyburn doesn't see a difference in holding a fundraiser at a sporting event as opposed to a dinner or reception," said Hope Derrick, Clyburn's communications director. "While some supporters might prefer a meal, others prefer sports, so the congressman holds events that appeal to a variety of interests."
Jonathan Beeton, spokesman for Wasserman Schultz, points out that the congresswoman holds numerous events that are free and open to the public in her south Florida district, including one this week marking the first anniversary of the health care overhaul law.
She likes sports events because they're fun and interesting, Beeton said, and are "something that's outside the stuffy Washington mold."
Becerra's office noted that he's a longtime proponent of public financing for congressional campaigns, but until that's enacted, he'll follow present law and raise the money he needs.
There's no firm count as to how many sports-related fundraisers occur, or how many people attend.
Members of Congress say they have no intention of conducting legislative business while the Braves are in a late-inning comeback or Ohio State and Kentucky are battling for a spot in the NCAA's Elite Eight.
In fact, they argue, lobbyists can prove to be distracting, since the hosts want to watch the game, not talk about the nuances of health care or nuclear energy.
Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo., hosted a fundraiser last week at the Verizon Center, which hosted regional NCAA basketball games. His beloved University of Missouri played and lost to Cincinnati.
"Other than Mizzou's unfortunate early exit from the tournament, it was a great night," said spokeswoman Sara Howard. "I'm guessing the people who attended were far more interested in watching the game than talking politics."
Bill Allison, the editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for openness in government, doesn't like the sports-as-fundraiser setup.
"If it was purely calling a member of Congress for an appointment in his office to make their case, no one would have a problem with that," he said. "But when you show up with a check for $2,500, things are different."
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