06/11/2010 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Progressive Groups Protest Washington's Pay-To-Play Culture

Two dozen protesters gathered outside Rep. Gregg Harper's (R-Miss.) annual "Mississippi Fish Fry" fundraiser at a Capitol Hill townhouse on Thursday, kicking off a series of summer demonstrations at fancy D.C. restaurants and other venues where members of Congress raise campaign cash from lobbyists.

The summer of protests, spearheaded by Common Cause and the Public Campaign Action Fund, spotlight Washington's pay-to-play culture, in which powerful special interests trade campaign donations for access to lawmakers on a daily basis.

There are more than 100 fundraisers between now and the end of July, according to the Sunlight Foundation's PoliticalPartyTime.org, a website that tracks fundraisers.

Demonstrators waved signs and chanted "Constituents, not cash!" as Rep. Harper greeted his guests at the townhouse, which is owned by a health care lobbying firm called Strategic Health Care.

The price of admission ranged from $100 for individuals to $1,000 for people representing political action committees, according to the invitation.

"Globs of oil and poisoned fish are washing up on beaches in his state and a cherished way of life for thousands of Mississippians is in peril, but Representative Harper, like all of members of Congress, is forced to keep raising money for his re-election bid," said Common Cause president Bob Edgar. "There is a better way, and it's called the Fair Elections Now Act."

The Fair Elections Now Act would allow congressional candidates to run for office without raising large campaign contributions. Instead, they would collect a large number of small ($100 or less) donations from their home state in order to qualify for a limited amount of "Fair Elections" funding for their campaign. The bipartisan legislation has the broad and cross-caucus support of more than 150 House members and 20 senators.

As a young man in a suit bounded up the steps, Cecilia Ventura of Common Cause shouted, "What are you buying today, Fancypants?"

Arriving guests, including Sen. Thad (R-Miss.) declined to be interviewed for the record.

"I think the whole thing is a little absurd, frankly," said a defense contractor who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. "There are 535 members doing this. Why was he singled out?"

Other members of Congress will be greeted by protesters at their fundraisers, too. The groups said they plan to stage protests at 15 or 20 more events this summer.

Calls to Harper's office seeking comment were not immediately returned.