Sunday, April 10, 2005

Michael Tackett: The Business of Influence

The Business of Influence in Washington
by Michael Tackett
Chicago Tribune reposted at Yahoo News

Jarvis is chairman of the United Seniors Association, an organization he markets as the small but scrappy conservative alternative to the venerable AARP. Brash and blunt, Jarvis has taken on a high profile in the capital this year--on television, in print and on the Internet--as he savages AARP for its opposition to President Bush's plan for private accounts within Social Security.

But the story of his fight with the nation's best-known seniors group is hardly one of David versus Goliath. The group is also known as USA Next and is funded primarily with millions of dollars from pharmaceutical and energy companies, among others.

Like hundreds of tax-exempt organizations on the political left and right that flourish in Washington, USA Next is not required to disclose its donors or contractors. And the money involved is sizable, $28 million in 2004, according to Jarvis' estimates.

Records obtained by Public Citizen show that PhRMA, the trade association for major U.S. drug companies, has in past years been a large donor, along with drug giant Pfizer Inc.

USA Next's powerful connections, however, extend beyond contributors. In fiscal year 2003, other records show, USA Next mistakenly filed with the IRS a list of its top five contractors. The top contractor for that tax year, earning more than $1.3 million, was a firm whose founder is also a principal in another firm with strong ties to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

And United Seniors has packed its board with prominent Republican consultants over the years. Board members include Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist under investigation by the Justice Department and Congress who also has links to DeLay.

An examination of USA Next based on its tax filings, other records, government investigative reports and interviews provides a window to how Washington's vast and largely unregulated influence industry works.

Special interests can use groups like USA Next as proxies to wage public campaigns with which they would not want to be directly associated. USA Next also has launched issue campaigns in congressional races across the country, stopping short of literally backing a candidate but leaving no doubt about which candidate it supports.

In IRS filings, United Seniors says its mission is "public awareness" and "public advocacy" and that it distributes "millions of copies of newsletters to senior citizens that will directly affect their lives."

It is clear that the group is doing much more, though there is almost never a straight line between a donation by an interested party to a lobbyist or group and a specific legislative act.

Entire Article

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