Annals of Influence Peddling

After 12 years in the Ohio legislature and two terms in the House, Ohio Republican Bob Ney is far from a dewy-eyed political innocent. So Chatterbox took notice when Ney publicly charged that a lobbyist for Procter and Gamble “crossed the line” on Monday by explicitly linking campaign contributions to his votes on fast-track and Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade privileges for China.

The story, as Ney tells Slate, goes like this:

R. Scott Miller, P&G’s director of government relations, stopped by to lobby Maria Robinson, a Ney aide, on trade issues. During a heated exchange, overheard by several staffers, Miller made derogatory comments about the ignorance of Ney’s constituents in his Appalachian district on the West Virginia border. When these understated diplomatic gambits failed, Miller resorted to the hard sell. “If you’ll notice,” the lobbyist reportedly said, “the congressman’s contributions have dwindled because of his votes against fast track. His future contributions are in jeopardy if he votes against MFN.”

That blunt warning violated the code of Washington where the ritual exchange of campaign cash for congressional votes is always implicit. Both sides in the bargain have deniability if the quid pro quos are not directly spelled out. Ney freely admits that he is accustomed to traditional threats of political retaliation such as, “If vote like that, it will be difficult for us to support you.” But what aroused Ney’s ire was that the P&G lobbyist “sat in my office and directly tied a contribution to a vote.” Ney shot off a letter, which he made public, to the CEO of Procter and Gamble charging that “Miller’s actions were unacceptable, unethical and illegal.”

Not surprisingly, the official Procter and Gamble line is that Miller’s comments were tragically misinterpreted. But Chatterbox, who has known Ney since the early days of the Gingrich Congress and regards him as a straight shooter, strongly believes the congressman’s account. Ney is a backroom legislator rather than a where’s-the-camera publicity hound. “After 18 years in politics,” Ney said, “this is the first time I ever wrote that kind of letter.” Cynics might regard the whole flap as a campaign stunt. But Ney points out that GOP congressmen do not normally relish the reputation as lobbyist-bashers, adding, “It’s not like I’m at the desperate stage of the election campaign.”

So how much campaign money was at stake in this abortive exchange of views on pressing public policy questions? Precisely $3,000. That was how much the Procter and Gamble PAC gave to Ney in the 1995-96 political cycle, the last time they contributed to his campaigns. The sad truth of life in Washington is that access can be bought for pocket change, as long as the lobbyists remember to couch their threats in socially approved language.

Walter Shapiro