Monday, 27 June 2011

Jim Renacci gets help from Visa, Mastercard while they try to stop fee limits. But he's hardly unique.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Large banks and credit card issuers such as Visa and Mastercard  have tried to block a federal rule that will limit the amount they can charge merchants for processing debit-card transactions. Congressman Jim Renacci of Ohio sides with the card companies, saying the government should stay out of the fee-fixing business. So far, though, Renacci and others have failed. The restrictions on so-called swipe fees, which are supposed to help consumers and merchants (but could result in the banks looking for money elsewhere, including higher checking account fees), are scheduled to take effect July 21.
So what can Visa and Mastercard do?
There's always golf.
Visa and Mastercard's political action committees hosted a golf fund-raising outing on Monday for Renacci, the former Wadsworth mayor who's in his first year in the House of Representatives. Held at the Washington Golf and Country Club in Arlington, Va., the fund-raiser's participation fees started at $1,000, according to an invitation obtained by PartyTime, the Sunlight Foundation's fund-raising transparency blog. 
Renacci is on the House Financial Services Committee. Banks and credit cards are part of his legislative portfolio. That's why good-government groups like Sunlight raise eyebrows at these kinds of fund-raising relationships. But Renacci's spokeswoman, Karin Davenport, says her boss's legislative and political activities are driven by core beliefs in the effectiveness of the private market, not some craven quest for campaign dollars.
"Whether from individual donors or political action committees, the decision making process behind political donations is a topic that can only be addressed by those making the donations," Davenport said when asked about the golf outing. "As for Congressman Renacci's position on interchange fees, he has always been a supporter of the free market and an opponent of government price fixing on any item, whether on the price of milk, a loaf of bread or the cost of swipe fees."
A Sunlight report in April said that for the first three months this year, Renacci got 36 percent of his political donations from the banking, insurance and real estate industries. It could have been worse. Seven of the 10 freshman Republicans on the committee got at least 40 percent of their campaign cash from those industries in the first quarter of the year.
Steve Stivers, a Coumbus Republican, ranked second among the freshmen, at 58 percent, according to Sunlight.
This is a perennial issue, and the potential for conflicts is driven partly by lawmakers' need to raise money for elections. This blog noted earlier this week that Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has filed to run for U.S. Senate, came to Washington on Monday to raise money at the offices of lobbyists with interests before Congress.
But what about Democrats?
They do it too. Sen. Sherrod Brown was to be the beneficiary of a fund-raising breakfast on Wednesday hosted by the Fluor Corp. PAC, according to Sunlight, but Brown's office says the event was canceled. Fluor is a global construction company with government contracts and a host of interests that can be affected by Washington, including energy and military matters.
In April, the National Association of Realtors' PAC hosted a Brown fund-raising breakfast. Brown is on the Senate Banking Committee, chairing its financial institutions panel and serving on its housing subcommittee. The Realtors have a stake in how the committee will handle mortgage and credit-worthiness issues in the wake of the recession and mortgage meltdown.
The broken-record question, then: Is the lawmaker getting a favor, in the form of a fund-raising event, from a group that could benefit from his vote or legislative sponsorship? Taken even further, is there a quid pro quo?
"Absolutely not," maintains Brown spokeswoman Meghan Dubyak. "The senator has a long record of independence and of standing up to special interests and putting the people of Ohio first."
Congess isn't the only branch of government where these issues arise. Worth reading is a new report from the Center for Public Integrity on President Barack Obama and bundlers, or individuals who helped raise large sums for his 2008 election. The title: "Obama rewards big bundlers with jobs, commussions, stimulus money, government contracts and more."




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