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OUT FRONT: NRA Targeted Money to Crime Bill’s Swing Lawmakers

August 18, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a textbook case of special interest politicking, the National Rifle Association donated tens of thousands of dollars to lawmakers in the weeks just before they cast deciding votes against consideration of the crime bill.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the NRA’s largesse between June and early August were a handful of Democrats who abandoned President Clinton last week after voting for an earlier version of his crime bill, according to a review of campaign reports.

Among them: Bart Stupak of Michigan ($1,950 on June 27), Martin Lancaster of North Carolina ($2,500 on June 1), Charlie Wilson of Texas ($2,500 on June 29) and Bill Orton of Utah ($4,450 on June 28).

A few Republicans who reversed course last week also were big beneficiaries, including Gary Franks of Connecticut who got a $4,950 general election donation from the NRA’s political action committee in June.

He was the lone member of the congressional delegation from Connecticut, where crime is a volatile issue this year, to vote against bringing the bill to a House vote last week.

One NRA contribution was made the same day as the vote: Alaska Republican Don Young got $3,500 on Aug. 11. A few days earlier, Republicans Wayne Allard and Dan Schaefer of Colorado got similar donations. All three voted against both versions of the crime bill.

The donation pattern reveals how the NRA - long one of the most effective special interest lobbies in Washington - used political contributions before the surprise defeat of Clinton’s crime bill.

An AP computer analysis of NRA contributions to the House since the start of the 1994 election cycle found the group gave nearly 88 percent of its $621,000 in donations to lawmakers who opposed the crime bill.

Those figures include nearly $60,000 in donations AP identified as coming in the weeks immediately before the vote. The NRA has not filed its report for that period yet, but AP identified the donations by examining the campaign finance reports of dozens of congressman who have filed fresh reports with the Federal Election Commission over the past week.

The pro-gun lobby opposes a single provision that would ban 19 assault-type weapons.

In April, that provision was not in the crime bill that easily passed the House. Instead, the assault weapons ban was narrowly passed as a separate bill.

But when the crime bill returned to the House floor last week, the weapons ban had been attached to it.

The NRA, however, had done its homework over the summer, identifying and heavily lobbying those lawmakers who supported the other anti-crime provisions but opposed the weapons bans when it was considered as a separate provision in May.

They may well have voted against the bill in its new form anyway, but the NRA made sure they didn’t forget who was supporting them.

Democrats such as Stupak and James Barcia ($2,450 since April), who both hail from northern Michigan districts where hunting is popular, were natural targets for the NRA.

So were Wilson, who hails from rural Texas, and Republican James Quillen of Tennessee.

All voted for the April version of the crime bill but against the assault weapons ban the next month.

Big donations like the ones the NRA delivers are an important tool lobbyists use to gain access to members of Congress, especially during hectic sessions when lawmakers are torn between policy-making and campaigns.

A check in hand gives lobbyists a chance to grab a lawmaker’s ear - at a campaign fund-raiser for instance - to make a pitch for their cause. In the NRA’s case, the pitch was that the weapons ban ought to be reason enough to oppose the whole crime bill.

Critics, however, claim the proximity of such large donations to vote switches leaves the impression that congressmen are for sale.

″When you begin to see the correlation you have to conclude that money is buying something more than access,″ said Ellen Miller, director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, which studies campaign finance issues.

An NRA spokesman did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

But some in Congress bristled at the criticism.

″Bart’s vote is not for sale. His positions have always been clear. That’s how he votes. He doesn’t vote based on contributions,″ said Eric Hoffman, a spokesman for Stupak.

Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Young, said the Alaska congressman has regularly received NRA money and that the donation on the same day of the vote was coincidence. ″Don’s position on Second Amendment right has always been clear,″ Hansen said.

Franks said while he opposed the weapons ban and has received a total of nearly $10,000 from the NRA this election cycle, he voted to keep the crime bill from coming to the floor last week for a different reason - he opposed the addition of some $5 billion in spending.

Franks said he’ll vote for a trimmed-down bill even if it includes the weapons ban. ″I’m not going to allow any one item - other than the pork - to keep me from supporting it,″ he said.

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