Congressman Says Lobbyist 'Crossed Line'
Rep. Ney Says P&G Official Suggested Campaign Fund Cutoff for China Trade Stance
By Eric Pianin and Thomas B. Edsall
A lobbyist for the Cincinnati-based corporation this week told an aide to Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) that P&G was cutting off its employee-funded political action committee's relatively modest contributions to Ney unless he ended his opposition to key trade legislation favored by big business, according to Ney. The two-term congressman, who is facing a tough reelection campaign, cried foul and asked the Justice Department and House ethics committee to investigate the incident.
The controversy emerged just as business leaders and senior Republicans appeared to have reached a truce on a series of divisive issues.
Ney charged yesterday that the lobbyist, R. Scott Miller, "crossed the line" of propriety by directly linking the issue of future contributions to Ney's vote on "most favored nation" status for China. Ney has consistently voted against granting China favorable trade status, arguing that it would worsen the U.S. balance of trade and reward the Chinese despite their continued violation of human rights. "I don't know who they think they are," Ney said. "This is not the way to go."
P&G officials denied that Miller did anything improper and insist that Ney's aides "misinterpreted" the conversation in the congressman's Washington office on Monday. Campaign finance experts say it is unlikely that P&G's lobbyist violated any laws.
"It may be something that doesn't look pretty when they're so outspoken about what they're doing, but that's exactly what everybody else does," said Kenneth A. Gross, a federal election lawyer and former chief enforcement officer for the Federal Election Commission.
"It's one of those rare windows through which you can see behind the facade," said Paul Hendrie of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It illustrates that big contributors expect to get something in return for their contribution. That's something everybody kind of knows goes on but nobody is willing to admit."
Word of the Ney complaint spread quickly through the lobbying community, where some prominent practitioners suggested that Miller may have been "inartful" or "overly direct" but that what he told Ney's staff is just part of the way the system works in Washington.
Bill Lane, Washington director of government affairs for Caterpillar Inc., contended that every interest in the city, from labor to business groups to consumer organizations, supports those members who vote "correctly" and does not support those who vote the other way. "We tend to support pro-trade, pro-growth candidates. We do not support protectionists."
"The Korologos theory of politics is: 'Democracy is not a spectator sport.' I support those who support me, but I'm a little more subtle," said Tom C. Korologos, a veteran business lobbyist. "When passions run high, I guess you say things that you want to say."
P&G's Good Government Committee, which is funded mostly by contributions from senior management, contributed a total of $3,000 to Ney's 1994 and 1996 congressional campaigns but has contributed nothing to him in the current election season. Ney last year sided with a group of Republicans who joined many Democrats to block a bill that would have granted President Clinton enhanced "fast-track" authority to negotiate foreign trade agreements. The measure was favored by P&G and other multinational corporations.
Until recently, major exporting companies like P&G and the Republican House leadership have been at loggerheads over trade legislation. Corporate leaders have accused the GOP of encouraging legislation setting economic sanctions against key foreign trade partners on religious and other grounds, and of failing to press such key legislation as fast-track trade negotiating authority and most-favored-nation status for China.
The Chamber of Commerce and the Business-Industry PAC publicly voiced their discontent, infuriating a number of House GOP leaders who suggested that the Washington-based heads of business groups were too close to the Democrats.
What caused the most anger was a March 25 BIPAC memo to corporate executives saying that if legislators elected with strong business support frequently take positions contrary to the interests of pro-market conservatives, then "business people have both a right and a responsibility to speak up and to reconsider their political support the next time around."
Since then, business leaders and the GOP have largely buried the hatchet. The House leadership has placed a priority on taking up key trade bills, and BIPAC issued a new memorandum declaring that it is in business's interest to have a Republican-controlled Congress. Yet tensions obviously still exist.
The flare-up between Ney and P&G occurred during a meeting between Miller, P&G's director of national government relations, and Maria Robinson, one of Ney's legislative aides.
According to Ney's account of the meeting in a letter to P&G officials, Miller was "visibly upset" about Ney's opposition to the "fast-track" trade bill. Miller also said that Ney's constituents, from east-central Ohio, were "not educated" and "do not understand" trade issues, according to the letter.
According to Ney, Miller told his aide "in no uncertain terms" that contributions to Ney's campaign had been reduced because of Ney's opposition to the fast-track legislation and that future contributions "have been completely put in jeopardy" because of the congressman's opposition to most favored nation status for China.
"We're sorry, because we always had a good working relationship with Congressman Ney," Linda Ulrey, a P&G spokeswoman, said yesterday. "We never had any intention of tying his future votes on any issue to contributions from our employee PAC." Miller did not return a call seeking comment.
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