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Week of 3.14.08

Telecom Money in Congress

Lawmakers who favor granting immunity to telecom companies for participating in the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program receive more money from the telecom industry than those who oppose immunity. That's the finding from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan Washington-based organization that researches money's influence on politics. This article was originally published in Capital Eye, the money-in-politics newsletter of CRP, and is reprinted with permission.

Phone Companies Want to Be Off the Hook
By Lindsay Renick Mayer

Lindsay Renick Mayer is the money-in-politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics.

March 06, 2008—For an industry that exists to enhance communication, the telecom industry is awfully quiet these days. Instead, as members of Congress debate this week whether to provide immunity from lawsuits for those companies that allegedly cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, the telecom industry has reached out and touched lawmakers with cash.

After the New York Times reported in 2005 that the nation's major telecommunications companies helped the government monitor U.S. residents' phone calls ostensibly to investigate terrorist threats, civil rights organizations and others began filing multibillion-dollar lawsuits against the phone companies for violating customers' privacy rights. The telecom industry has traditionally had a strong financial connection to Congress, and that trend has continued since the suits have been brought against it. During the 2006 election cycle, the industry gave lawmakers more than $6 million (63 percent to Republicans) and spent $109.6 million on lobbying, keeping the industry among the top 20 spenders in 2005 and 2006. Now, as Congress debates an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that expired nearly three weeks ago, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and other companies are pushing for retroactive immunity as part of the deal, saving them from the costly litigation.

"The campaign contributions buy [the companies] access and influence to help them make their case about why they should be granted immunity," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause, a government watchdog group. "It sends a signal to the public that it's business as usual in Washington."

Last month, the Senate passed its own version of a bill that would provide immunity to the telecom companies, which now face at least 40 pending lawsuits. The 68 senators who voted "yes" on the legislation collected, on average, $21,200 from telephone utility companies from 2005 through 2007 (this includes contributions to 2008 presidential campaigns). The 29 who voted "no" collected an average of $13,000. (Three senators didn't vote, including Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). The trend holds for contributions from AT&T and Verizon—both have given more to senators who voted for the bill that would shield them from costly lawsuits. In the 2006 election cycle and since, senators who support immunity have received $7,100 from AT&T and $5,900 from Verizon, on average, compared to $4,800 from AT&T to those who oppose protecting the industry and $4,400 from Verizon.

"The 68 senators who voted to grant immunity collected an average of $21,200 from telephone utility companies, compared to $13,000 collected by the 29 who voted 'no' collected an average of $13,000."
The House version of the bill, passed last November, conflicts with the Senate's legislation; it would prevent the telephone companies from getting out of the lawsuits and force the administration to reveal more details about the secretive wiretapping program. The chief sponsor of the House bill, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), has received only $4,000 from telephone utilities in this election cycle, though he received $19,100 for his last re-election campaign and the industry has been Conyers's seventh-largest donor over his career. The lead sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Jay Rockefeller(D-W.Va.), on the other hand, has received $49,600 from telephone utilities this cycle—more than twice what he received in 2006 and more than any other senator who's not running for president. (Obama, Clinton and Republican John McCain have collected more from the industry.) AT&T has been Rockefeller's second-largest contributor in his career.

This week members of the Senate and House intelligence and judiciary committees have met to try to resolve the differences between the two bills. Many congressional Republicans have said they'll only support the Senate-passed version and have been foregoing some of the meetings set up to reach a compromise. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyersaid Wednesday, however, that the House will not take up the compromise measure this week. Republicans on the two House committees have received, on average, $18,000 from the telecom industry in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, while Democrats have collected $9,500. Of the 435 members of the House, 419 received money from the telephone utility industry in the 2006 and/or 2008 election cycle, with an average of $14,100 to each member.

The administration and some Republicans have said that Democrats are resisting granting immunity because they are protecting the interests of trial lawyers, who stand to profit from successful lawsuits and tend to back Democrats financially. In the 2006 election cycle, trial lawyers gave members of Congress $5.1 million, 87 percent of which went to Democrats. This election cycle they've given $3.2 million, with 95 percent going to Democrats. The senators who voted to give the phone companies immunity received $26,700 on average from trial lawyers, while those who voted against received $80,500.

According to a statement from the American Association for Justice(formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America), however, the trial bar hasn't lobbied on the bill or supported either side, adding that "the debate over surveillance law should be centered on finding the balance between civil liberties and our nation's national security." (The AAJ has a friend in Conyers, who sponsored the bill that would permit telecom lawsuits, but so does AT&T; over the Michigan congressman's career, the trial lawyers group has been his number-one contributor, and the telecom giant has been second.)

AT&T, Sprint and Verizon remain tight-lipped about their role in the wiretapping program or their stance on the issue, even when asked a neutral question about whether they feel their voices are being heard on Capitol Hill. "AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy," a company statement says simply. "We do not comment on matters of national security." Sprint's spokesman said: "Due to the sensitive nature of the immunity for telecoms topic, our ongoing policy is to refrain from discussing this matter." And a spokesman for Verizon declined to comment for similar reasons.

"In 2007, the telephone utility industry spent at least $31.4 million lobbying Congress."
Although the companies themselves haven't publicly said why they think they should receive retroactive immunity, President Bush said that the industry should be thanked, not sued, for helping the country with defense efforts and possibly saving American lives. "Should those who stepped forward to say we're going to help defend America have to go to the courthouse to defend themselves, or should the Congress and the president say thank you for doing your patriotic duty? I believe we ought to say thank you," he told reporters this week. The administration has said that if the companies are punished, they'll be less likely to help the federal government keep the country secure in the future.

Those on the other side of the debate aren't hesitating to make their opinions known. But they have also spent far less money than the telephone companies on establishing relationships with lawmakers. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits include theElectronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Greenpeace, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

In addition to direct lobbying similar to what the telephone companies have been doing, the ACLU has also worked hard to mobilize its members, asking them to call, e-mail or even meet with their members of Congress, said Michelle Richardson, legislative consultant at the ACLU, which spent $3.5 million on lobbying in 2006 and at least $1.8 million last year. (Lobbying data for 2007 is still incomplete.) The group's efforts to convince Congress that blocking the lawsuits is not in the public's best interest are paying off, Richardson said. "The tone in Congress has shifted," she said. "The pressure is on them now to make some meaningful changes to this law."

The plaintiffs spent a total of $3.6 million lobbying in 2006 and at least $2 million in 2007. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Cingular Wireless and BellSouth (both now part of AT&T), defendants in the cases, together spent $40.8 million on lobbying efforts in 2006 and at least $25.4 million last year. In total, the telephone utility industry spent at least $31.4 million lobbying in 2007, with the immunity legislation among the industry's issues.

For highly regulated industries such as telecommunications, however, lobbying is just a normal business practice, said Barbara Cherry, a professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University. "Key laws here and there can make and break your business plans, so you can't blame [the companies] for putting the money there," said Cherry, who is a former employee of both the Federal Communications Commission and AT&T. "That's not to say it's done in every instance with the best integrity, but this is a reality."

CRP Researchers Douglas Weber and Greg Gasiewski and Communications Intern Brian Kusiak contributed to this report.