A group of U.S. senators who could determine the fate of a climate bill received more than $20 million in campaign contributions over the past two decades from energy interests with a direct stake in pending legislation.
Electric utilities poured at least $4.2 million to the 27 lawmakers, who are considered "fence sitters" on a global warming bill, according to an E&E analysis of potential votes. The oil and gas sector pumped $5.8 million to the group over the past 20 years.
Transportation companies and their associated unions gave some $6 million combined, while forestry companies and agricultural interests doled out more than $2 million. Environmental groups donated $315,000 over the same time frame.
Many senators insist that such contributions do not buy their votes, even though many have meetings with donors.
"What you really buy with money is access. The lawmaker's door is open," said Al Cigler, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.
E&E analyzed the contributions using Federal Election Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The numbers represent money funneled through an entity's political action committee or via its individual members or employees. Under federal law, interest groups and unions are banned from donating directly from their treasuries.
The $20 million tally reflects donations from the top 20 sectors giving to each senator. It did not include money from leadership PACs, which allow politicians to collect money to donate to other politicians.
With Democratic leaders scrambling to find a legislative blueprint on climate change that attracts 60 votes to block a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, the group of 10 Republicans and 17 Democrats likely will determine the outcome of an ultimate package in Congress. The House passed a bill in June establishing a mandatory cap on heat-trapping gases.
The geography of campaign finance
Many of the on-the-fence politicians hail from states burning and extracting a lot of coal or containing a large number of energy-intensive and transportation-related industries. These senators are in a tough political spot, since those sectors employ hundreds of thousands of workers but also constitute a majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
West Virginia, Maine, Arkansas, Ohio, Alaska, Indiana, North Dakota, Michigan and Montana are heavily represented in the fence-sitting crowd, with both U.S. senators from each of those states belonging to the group.
"You see the money tracking geographic interests," said Michael Malbin, a professor of political science at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, shows up as a top-20 donor to eight of the senators from coal-rich regions in the East and Midwest, which are dotted with heavy manufacturers. The labor union, which represents hundreds of thousands of electricity industry workers, is a strong backer of coal and nuclear power.
Mining appears in the top sectors contributing to three of the lawmakers from big coal states, Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), but not the others.
Similarly, producers of crops like rice and sugar gave more than $1 million to six of the fence sitters from big farm states, but largely ignored the rest of the 27. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) received more than $600,000 in campaign donations from the sector since her assumption of office in 1999.
"Senator Lincoln is accountable to her constituents alone and considers legislation with only Arkansans' best interest in mind," said spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum in response.
Much research indicates that campaign donations pack the biggest punch when a bill is being drafted and behind-the-scenes meetings are pivotal, according to Cigler.
That means that the impact of the dollars could be strongest now with a climate bill, even though a floor vote in the Senate likely won't occur until next year at the earliest. Currently, senators are slowly negotiating the details of an ultimate package as health care and financial reform dominate the congressional calendar.
Many of the top givers to the 27 lawmakers held meetings on climate change this year and want changes in legislation passed by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee this fall.
Rural co-ops prize 'regular interaction'
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents many small coal-fired utilities, had "regular interaction" on the issue with several of the offices of senators receiving campaign contributions from the organization, including Lincoln and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), said Patrick Lavigne, a spokesman for NRECA. The association ranks in the top two dozen donors to those two lawmakers.
Dorgan's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Lavigne said the intention of the contributions was not to grab the ear of a lawmaker on any single issue, but to "support our friends" generally. The group recently criticized pending Senate climate legislation in a letter to Capitol Hill.
An aide to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) confirmed that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers met with his staff in the past month about climate change, along with Ohio interests on "all sides of the clean energy debate." The senator is one of the eight senators counting IBEW as a top donor.
IBEW would like to see emission cuts for the year 2020 in a bill lowered "closer to 14 percent," said Jim Hunter, director of IBEW's Utility Department.
The House bill called for a 17 percent cut, a number that President Obama plans to back in Copenhagen in December negotiations to forge a post-2012 international agreement on climate. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hiked the number to 20 percent.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been a leader in the chamber this year in trying to forge a compromise on a climate package with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), counts SCANA Corp., an energy holding company, and Energy Solutions Inc., a nuclear services company, among his top three contributors. NRECA and utility giants Southern Co. and Duke Energy rank in his top 20, as well.
These companies "have significant operations in our state, are major members of our state's business community, and employ thousands of people," said Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham. "We know all of these groups, speak with them, and respect their views." Some of the companies back climate legislation, while others have reservations, Bishop added.
Despite meetings with donors, lawmakers take issue with the suggestion that money shifts their positions. They often say they interact with dominant businesses in their home states, whether they have contributed or not.
Big sugar is not sweet on cap and trade
Asked whether campaign dollars matter with climate change in the U.S. Senate, one of the fence sitters, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), uttered an adamant "no."
The only person he mentioned when asked which companies and groups influence his thinking on climate change was Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy. Duke Energy is an electricity supplier to Lugar's home state of Indiana, but is not one of the senator's top campaign contributors.
Similarly, Sean Neary, a spokesman for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), said "it should not be seen as unusual for the senator to be meeting with the leaders of one of his state's biggest employers."
American Crystal Sugar, a beet sugar producer with extensive operations in North Dakota, is a top giver to Conrad and his Democratic colleague Dorgan. The company's representative association, the U.S. Beet Sugar Association, met with the offices of both politicians, according to its newsletter.
James Johnson, president of the association, declined to elaborate on the exact provisions pushed for by the group, but said "a cap-and-trade system has the potential to impose a huge cost" on the industry.
Even if money wields influence, the picture is more complicated than a straight donate-dollars-and-get-a-vote-or-meeting situation, campaign finance experts say.
In many cases, direct lobbying and public advertising pack a bigger punch on the political process, said Malbin. For one thing, large corporations and coalitions can spend tens of millions on lobbying firms but are restricted in how much they can dole out in campaign donations.
Groups with recognizable names like the Sierra Club can make a bit of an impression on lawmakers via mail campaigns and other tactics outside of the campaign finance process, Malbin said.
And in some cases, the top giver to a senator doesn't match his or her stance on a given issue, particularly if a donor pushes multiple causes. For example, the biggest campaign contributor to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) since 1989 is the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, which has echoed the senator on many topics but not climate change.
Additionally, lawmakers often seek out donors rather than the other way around. "The politicians badger the political action committees to contribute to dinners," Cigler said.
Effective or not, campaign money is flowing at increased rates from many companies with a strong interest in the fate of a climate bill to six of the 27 senators up for re-election in 2010. Those politicians include Dorgan and Lincoln, as well as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).
"There's been a huge uptick, and there's no question that climate is one of the major reasons why," said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a watchdog group.
Tracking coal, power and money
Railroad operator Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which was just acquired by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Corp., tripled the amount given to Lincoln from $11,000 in the 2004 cycle to $35,550 in the 2010 cycle. A cycle represents six years, the length of a senator's term.
Burlington's trains ferry coal providing 10 percent of the nation's electricity. The fossil fuel is responsible for about a third of national greenhouse gas emissions. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Electric utilities have been on a recent money roll, as well, even though the 2010 election period has a year left for companies to pump huge amounts of additional money into campaign coffers.
"Most of the money is going to come in the final months before [November 2010]," said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Exelon, the nation's largest operator of nuclear power, donated $74,650 from 2005 to 2010 to Specter through its political action committee and individual members, compared to $22,000 from 1999 to 2004. Similarly, Atlanta-based Southern Co. doubled its donations to Murkowski from her last election cycle to now.
Utility giants American Electric Power and Duke Energy followed a parallel pattern with Dorgan. Duke gave $39,000 to him in the past six years, after the company did not register in his top 100 donors at all in the 2004 cycle. The same trend occurred with Ohio-based American Electric Power.
American Electric Power's employee-run political action committee recently sponsored a fundraiser for Dorgan, according to company spokeswoman Melissa McHenry. Climate change and energy issues generally were a top reason for the upped donations to him, she said.
"[Dorgan] is on key committees and represents an important coal-producing state," McHenry said.