08/28/97 - 05:39 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Lawmakers face lobbyist restrictions

WASHINGTON - Lobbyist Butler Derrick, who represents airlines and railroads, donated $14,250 to 25 members of Congress in the first half of this year.

Political donations are common among lobbyists. But unlike most, Derrick's gifts came from money left in his campaign fund in 1995 as he retired from two decades in Congress.

And almost half the money he gave this year went to ex-colleagues whose committee assignments deal with the travel industry and other transportation questions.

"I think it's a very legitimate use of funds," said Derrick. "I believe in the legislation they're doing. That's why I give it to them."

Derrick is among several former members of Congress who dole out unspent campaign funds to other people's campaigns. It's a practice under attack by lawmakers trying to change the campaign finance system.

Retired lawmakers can return campaign funds to contributors, give them to charity, pay residual expenses or donate them to other politicians and political causes. They cannot pocket the money, as they once could.

Critics argue that those who register as lobbyists should forfeit the right to use leftover money for political gifts.

"Why should environmentalists contribute to a member of Congress only to have the member leave, become a lobbyist and give it to those members supporting the oil interests or the timber interests?" asked Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass.

Meehan plans to introduce legislation in the House to bar such usage of leftover funds. Sens. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., and John McCain, R-Ariz., are pushing similar legislation in the Senate.

Elaine Acevedo, president of the American League of Lobbyists, argues that restricting campaign contributions by ex-lawmakers is unfair.

If the public is encouraged to participate in the political process, Acevedo said, "How stupid it is to say lobbyists shouldn't have the same privilege ... (because) they work in a profession that may give them a little more knowledge?"

Ex-lawmakers must wait a year after they leave before lobbying their former colleagues but can make contributions immediately.

Take former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., and former Rep. Bill Brewster, D-Okla. Both entered the lobbying world after not seeking re-election last fall.

Brewster, a senior vice president for the lobbying firm R. Duffy Wall and Associates, contributed $3,500 to House members from January through June this year. Johnston, who has his own lobbying firm, made $8,000 in campaign donations.

"There's no more pragmatic contribution given in Washington than from a lobbyist to a lawmaker," said Larry Makinson, deputy director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which studies the relationship between money and campaigns. "It buys them a friendly relationship and a willing ear. Who would know that better than a former congressman?"

Neither Brewster nor Johnston is a registered lobbyist and thus would be exempted by Meehan's bill. But Derrick, a Democrat from South Carolina who registered after the 12-month restriction period, could no longer use leftover campaign funds for contributions.

A member of the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Jensen, Derrick counts among his clients Southwest Airlines and the rail giant Norfolk Southern Corp.

He began the year with $56,758 in his campaign bank account. His $14,250 in donations this year included $6,750 to lawmakers on the Senate and House panels dealing with transportation.

Derrick wonders what all the fuss is about.

"Congress needs all of the advice and help it can get," he said. "The best advice they can get is from former members. Those of us who continue to be a part of the political process render to the Congress and the country a service."

Typically, one in four ex-lawmakers joins a lobbying firm. This year, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., signed with Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson & Hand, whose members also include former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine.

Meehan's bill would bar ex-lawmakers from lobbying members of their former committees for five years after they leave office and from lobbying other members for two years. The restrictions also would apply to senior congressional staff.

He also would strip lawmakers-turned-lobbyists of access to the House floor, cloakroom and gym traditionally afforded ex-members.

"The notion is members shouldn't immediately cash in on the contacts they've made as a member of Congress," Meehan said. "This slows the revolving door."

By The Associated Press