All God's Lobbyists

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Philip Morris and General Motors spend more money than God to lobby the federal government. But God -- the God of the Christian Coalition, anyway -- pours more cash into Washington lobbying than any other citizen group. And by joining forces with like-minded groups, the coalition aims to pack the pews of Congress with religious conservatives next January.The Christian Coalition spent more than $4 million on federal lobbying during the first six months of 1997, the first period for which new federal disclosure reports are available. That sizable tithe for lobbyists, staff and expenses amounts to the 11th largest lobby in the nation, ranking alongside lobbies by massive multinational medical, industrial, telecommunications and finance companies such as Pfizer, General Electric, AT&T and Citicorp.The Virginia-based coalition -- which claims 1.9 million members, a figure its critics dispute -- also outspent the 33 million-member American Association of Retired Persons, according to a report compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (See Sidebar).The nonprofit coalition mustered this crusade on Washington by paying its lobbyists nearly one in every four dollars it collected. Coalition leaders bet heavily on their ability to sway Congress even as donations to the group plummeted from a high of $26.2 million in 1996 to $17 million last year. They folded their magazine and fired a fifth of their 200-person staff in order to continue feeding their lobbyists. The semiannual reports, the first required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, do not detail how the coalition spent its money. Lobbying costs typically include salaries and expenses of the coalition's six registered lobbyists, as well as their planning and research staffs. Not included are campaign contributions or the cost of grassroots lobbying efforts, such as the coalition's controversial voters' guides. The Coalition declined to elaborate when asked how it spent $22,000 a day on lobbying. "The Christian Coalition lobbies for pro-family legislation and fights for a moral government," said spokeswoman Molly Clatworthy. "We seek to give people of faith a voice in their government."An Aggressive AgendaThe voice was heard. Congress passed several coalition-sponsored laws last session. Among these were the $500-per-child tax credit and the ban on federal funding of abortions.And the thunder from the coalition pulpit has grown even louder this session. The Christian Coalition is pushing for further restrictions on abortion, and mounting campaigns to repeal state gay-rights and drug-legalization laws. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has reportedly promised to bring bills to the floor that would give married couples a tax break and reintroduce prayer in public schools.The prayer bill, misleadingly labeled the Religious Freedom Amendment, would eviscerate the First Amendment guarantee that government be neutral in matters of religion. Drafted by the coalition and approved by the House Judiciary Committee, the bill has drawn opposition from religious leaders who fear it would ultimately undermine protection of religious freedom.This fall, the Christian Coalition plans to team up with like-minded conservative groups to force the Republican Party to make abortion, sexual morality and family values the top issues in every campaign. The unnamed confederation was reportedly forged at a secret Washington, D.C., meeting held in early March. Longtime conservative leader Paul Weyrich is expected to lead the new entity, which will coordinate activity between the coalition and up-and-coming groups such as the Family Research Council.The research council is led by former Reagan domestic policy wonk Gary Bauer. With the support of wealthy conservatives including Amway founder Rich DeVos, the council has created a political action committee, or PAC, called the Campaign for Working Families. Bauer says his PAC has already raised $2.7 million.Recent elections in California and Illinois illustrate how these Christian armies plan to join forces. The Campaign for Working Families PAC bought television advertisements for two extremely conservative Republican candidates, while the Christian Coalition blanketed churches with voters guides that reviewed those candidates favorably. Both candidates outflanked moderate Republicans in their primaries, and one won the general election.Tax Exemption DisputedThis type of pincer move may not be legal. The Christian Coalition's tax-exempt status has been in jeopardy for nearly eight years. The Federal Election Commission has sued the coalition, accusing it of making $1.4 million in illegal expenditures on behalf of GOP candidates. And the Internal Revenue Service is investigating whether the coalition voters' guides violate its tax-exempt status. The IRS in early March ruled against Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network on a similar charge. Though the exact terms of Robertson's settlement with the IRS remain secret, the deal amounts to an acknowledgment that the network illegally funneled as much as $8.5 million to Robertson's 1988 Republican presidential campaign. CBN has agreed to pay a "significant" penalty and accept retroactive loss of tax-exempt status for 1986 and 1987. If the IRS takes an equally hard-line position against the Christian Coalition -- a group that grew out of Robertson's 1988 campaign -- then the coalition would be liable for millions of dollars in back taxes and fines, and every taxpayer who gave money to the coalition might have to amend his or her tax returns.But longtime coalition watcher Matt Freeman doubts that such a ruling would slow the torrent of conservative Christian money into politics. Freeman is a vice president of People for the American Way, a group that frequently challenges the coalition."Pat Robertson has had past organizations put out of business, but it never stopped him from being a lobbying force," Freeman said. "I fully expect that even if the IRS and FEC rulings go against them, the Christian Coalition will be a significant lobby for quite some time." With ready money and active members, neither the coalition nor the Family Research Council will lack for friends in Congress. And, not surprisingly, the council hopes for influence further down Pennsylvania Avenue. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, Ohio Rep. John R. Kasich and Missouri Sen. John Ashcroft lead the parade of presidential hopefuls who have already begun courting God's lobbyists.Sidebar OneLobbying LargeMore money is spent on lobbying than on all federal campaign contributions combinedLobbying is big business: $100 million-a-month big. That's the rate at which the nation's largest corporations, together with a handful of citizen groups, poured money into Washington, D.C., during the first six months of 1997, according to new disclosure documents.At that rate, Washington's lobbyists would wine and dine away $2.4 billion in two years. That tops even the astronomical $2.2 billion worth of campaign donations (hard and soft money) spent by all presidential and congressional candidates combined during the entire 1995-1996 election cycle.The first comprehensive look at the size of Washington's influence industry was released March 20 by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The report, entitled "Who's In the Lobby?" was compiled from the first round of semiannual disclosure reports filed by lobbyists under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The law provides that these reports are available to the public, but only at two locations in the District of Columbia. So the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics has added this massive compilation of data to its Web site (www.crp.org). Users can search for a selected lobbyist name or client name.The center's report lists 106 organizations that each spent at least $1 million on lobbying during the first six months of 1997. The American Medical Association topped the chart, spending $8.56 million. As large as these figures are, they seriously understate the actual size of the Washington lobbying industry. Public relations, grass-roots lobbying and lobbying that takes place at a state or local level are generally not included.Also not included are numerous famous lobbyists who presumably do not meet the legal definition of a lobbyist. For example, famous Clinton pal Vernon Jordan is not listed anywhere. Neither are former Senate majority leaders George Mitchell and Bob Dole, even though both draw fat paychecks from top lobbying firms.Top 20 Lobbying Spenders1. American Medical Association: $8,560,000 2. U.S. Chamber of Commerce: $7,000,0003. Philip Morris: $5,900,0004. General Motors: $5,200,0005. Edison Electric Institute: $5,000,000 6. Pfizer Inc.: $4,600,0007. United Technologies Corp.: $4,160,000 8. AT&T: $4,120,0008. General Electric: $4,120,00010. Citicorp: $4,100,00011. Christian Coalition: $4,040,00012. National Committee to Preserve Social Security: $4,020,000 13. Bell Atlantic: $3,960,00014. American Association of Retired Persons: $3,680,000 15. Northrop Grumman Corp.: $3,594,19716. Ford Motor Co.: $3,478,00017. American Hospital Association: $3,390,000 18. Texaco Inc.: $3,219,47319. Ameritech Corp: $3,200,00020. IBM Corp.: $3,180,000Source: Center for Responsive Politics.LinksChristian Coalitionhttp://www.cc.orgCenter for Responsive Politicshttp://www.crp.orgPeople for the American Wayhttp://www.pfaw.orgMonte Paulsen (mpaulsen@aminc.com) is national editor of Alternative Media Inc.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.