WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign will accept donations from lobbyists and political action committees, a difference in policy from the man she's hoping to replace, President Barack Obama.
The Clinton campaign confirmed that there would be no prohibition on such donations, after The Huffington Post was tipped off by two lobbyists supportive of the former secretary of state's run for the White House.
“Hillary Clinton has a long history of taking on tough fights against special interests, whether or not they’re donors to her campaigns," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the campaign. "She strongly supports campaign finance reform and has voted for tough lobbying reform, but as long as Republican groups and candidates are going to spend millions attacking Hillary, we need the resources to fight back.”
The approach is consistent with the one Clinton took in her last White House run in 2008. But it differs from what Obama did that same year and four years later. Though accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs comes with some risks -- to the extent that it adds to the criticism of Clinton as a creature of Washington -- even some good-government figures downplayed its significance.
"Self-imposed rules, in general, are not reform by themselves," said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice, an organization that advocates for transparency and against the influence of money in politics. "Americans should be much more interested in the proposals her campaign will share about how to address the problem of money in politics -- and more importantly, what she'll pledge to do to make those proposals a reality if elected."
Clinton's vulnerability on accepting donations from lobbyists and PACs likely will be limited by the fact that few, if any, other potential presidential candidates are likely to apply the prohibition to themselves. That wasn't the case in 2008. During their square-off in the Democratic primary that year, Obama used his refusal to take cash from K Street as a key point of distinction and a way to deflect attacks.
“Eleventh-hour smears, paid for by lobbyist money," went one ad run by the Obama campaign. "Isn’t that exactly what we need to change?”
At the time, Clinton defended her acceptance of lobbyist contributions at the progressive YearlyKos conference in 2007, saying, “A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans.” Her remarks drew a round of boos from the audience.
The Obama policy, however, proved easier to tout than to execute. On several occasions, money from lobbyists did make it through the screen, forcing the Obama campaign to issue refunds after it was reported.
It also became apparent the policy was largely ceremonial in terms of limiting the ability of powerful interests to fund campaigns. Executives and board members of large corporations spending huge sums on lobbying, and with their own political action committees still provided hefty contributions to the Obama campaign, as did non-registered lawyers working for firms registered to lobby for clients. Obama’s policy also did not cover lobbyists registered at the state level.
The total amount of money from lobbyists and PACs available to a presidential candidate isn’t overwhelmingly consequential. Clinton's 2008 campaign raised $1.4 million from political action committees and just under $2 million from registered lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The benefit of empowering lobbyist donors comes from their ability to raise money. There were at least 22 lobbyist bundlers for Clinton’s last presidential campaign.
Obama’s policy of refusing lobbyist and PAC money extended to the Democratic National Committee as well. The party’s central organ banned cash from these two sources as soon as Obama became the effective Democratic presidential nominee, after Clinton withdrew from the race in June 2008. This policy is perhaps more consequential, as the contribution limit is much higher for individual donors to the party committee ($33,400 per year) than to a candidate’s campaign ($2,700 per election). Political Action Committees, meanwhile, can donate $15,000 to a party committee and $5,000 to a candidate's campaign.
The DNC generally takes direction from the leader of the party. It isn’t clear when or if the DNC will turn on the spigot for lobbyist cash in the 2016 election cycle.