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Congress Is Busy, But Not With Legislative Business


From the race for president, now to Congress. It's caught in a serious time crunch, not to finish its legislative business, though it hasn't done much of that this year. No, the real squeeze is in the campaign fundraising. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, lawmakers are trying to fill up lobbyists' schedules with events hoping to extract a few more dollars for their re-election bids.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Capitol Hill always sees a last-minute push as lawmakers hit up lobbyists before going home to campaign. Republican consultant Ron Bonjean says this month is even more frantic than usual.

RON BONJEAN: There are only eight real days of in-person fundraising due to the Jewish holidays and the fact that Congress is likely to leave ahead of schedule.

OVERBY: So it's an intense eight days. Not even September 11th was off limits for soliciting cash. David Jones is a Democratic lobbyist. He describes one recent morning at the office.

DAVID JONES: I received my first fundraising invite at 9:38. By 11:30, I'd received 16 invitations.

OVERBY: They come in by email now. The fancy ones are PDF files with art. The website, run by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, was able to find invitations to 65 events for today. And Political Partytime doesn't even hear about all the events on tap. Jones says that at these things, they mainly talk about political strategy.

JONES: A lot of these conversations, unfortunately, are revolved around these superPACs and anonymous groups that are coming in and attacking these candidates.

OVERBY: Just this week, the social welfare group American Action Network said it's spending $1.6 million on ads attacking Democrats in four races. And two superPACs - Congressional Leadership Fund and Young Guns Action Fund - last month ran robo-calls against 42 House Democrats. Wright Andrews is a longtime lobbyist, also a Democrat.

WRIGHT ANDREWS: Members are being understandably aggressive, trying to get as much money as they can because they have a lot at risk. And I think you or I would be doing the same thing if we were, you know, in those shoes.

OVERBY: The money can come from a political action committee controlled by the lobbyist's client, or more painfully, it can come from the lobbyist's own checkbook. Andrews says the problem is that nowadays lawmakers ask for money pretty much all the time, from the day the session opens to the last day before the recess to campaign.

ANDREWS: A typical line you hear from lobbyists at this point is, boy, I'm tapped out and so's my PAC.

OVERBY: And just as lawmakers always believe they need more money, fundraising consultants want to fit in more time for their lawmaker clients to ask for it. The typical fundraising event used to be an evening reception in a bland room on Capitol Hill. Then there came themed receptions, then small dinners, then lunches and breakfasts. Again, Republican consultant Ron Bonjean.

BONJEAN: There aren't enough meals in the day to get this all done, so now you're squeezing in mid-morning, mid-afternoon coffees.

OVERBY: Which changes the old Capitol Hill habit of socializing over alcohol. Now, Bonjean says lobbyists have a different problem during the fundraising high season.

BONJEAN: They're probably less likely to go to sleep until very late, due to all that caffeine.

OVERBY: And then, Congress will be gone, not to be seen again till the lame duck session when lawmakers will be asking lobbyists to help pay off campaign debts. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.