Dick Durbin’s cozy alliance with Wal-Mart, Home Depot and the giant retail lobby

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.
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Everybody knows, as Sen. Dick Durbin keeps telling us, the credit card companies and big banks have a well-oiled lobbying machine on Capitol Hill fighting against a new law that gives the Federal Reserve the authority to set what price Visa, Mastercard and others get for debit and credit card purchases at retailers across the country.

“I will tell you this: we are watching a lobbying effort on Capitol Hill the likes of which we’ve never seen. The banking industry and the credit card companies have so much money on the table,” Durbin griped Monday on CNBC.

But hold on: The retail stores that stand to gain piles of cash from a lower, government-set price have their own army of lobbyists.

Specifically, retail stores, led by Wal-Mart and Home Depot, spent more than $40 million in 2010 employing 411 lobbyists. In addition, their employees, lobbyists and PACs donated millions of dollars to key lawmakers.

And Durbin himself has some questions to answer.

Last June, on the eve of a key Senate vote on the “interchange fee” issue in which Wal-Mart was deeply invested, the company announced it would donate $20 million to charities and opening scores of new stores in the Chicago area, in Durbin’s home state of Illinois.

Asked about the conspicuous donation by the Washington Times, Durbin not only claimed he was “not familiar” with it, but said “I’ve had no contact, personally, with Wal-Mart on this issue.” (In June, Wal-Mart spokesman Steve Restivo said the donation was unrelated to the interchange fees issue or Durbin.)

Notably, while Durbin was having “no contact” with Wal-Mart, two of his former aides, now lobbyists for the top Democratic powerhouse firm Podesta Group, were lobbying for Wal-Mart on the interchange fee issue, according to federal lobbying disclosure forms.

The form covering from April 2010 to June 2010 shows repeated contacts between the former staffers and Durbin’s office.

Then, one month after the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed, both of those former aides, Melissa Merz and Donni Turner, attended an Aug. 10 fundraiser for Durbin hosted by the Podesta Group. A group of lobbyists mostly from the Podesta Group gave Durbin $5000 on Aug. 10 and a $5000 check from Wal-Mart’s PAC cleared shortly afterward, on Aug. 27.

Durbin’s office did not reply to a request for comment on the puzzling improbability of his leading a push for the regulations while having no contact with its top business backer for whom two of his former aides were lobbying for.

[Update: a Durbin spokesman emailed to say Durbin’s comments were with regards to his knowledge of Wal-Marts donation to the City of Chicago.]

Merz and Turner were two of the 92 lobbyists paid by Wal-Mart in 2010. It’s total lobbying budget was $5.9 million, of which Podesta Group got $440,000.

The giant big-box retailer, known for its low prices, is leading the charge for the strict new rules on interchange fees. Its PAC gave the most from the retail industry: $3.2 million in the 2010 election cycle.

Number two was Home Depot, whose PAC donated $2 million. Number three was the National Association of Convenience Stores, which gave just over $1 million.

But even the gigantic lobbying budgets (at least $40.1 million in 2010) and millions in donations (at least $6 million in the 2010 election cycle) don’t reveal the full footprint of the retail lobby.

The non-profit group National Association of Convenience Stores had a 2009 budget of almost $24 million, and President Henry Armour was paid about $1.5 million, according to the group’s tax form.

The National Retail Federation had a 2008 budget of $29.5 million; President Tracy Mullin made $1.9 million.

The retail lobby’s coalition, the Merchants Payments Coalition, lists 107 separate non-profit groups, including the convenience stores group and the National Retail Federation, as members.

Most of the groups presumably don’t have annual budgets over $20 million, but it’s still a lot of money.

When these non-profit groups use those budgets to lobby the Executive Branch, for instance to convince the Federal Reserve that it should mandate a lower price for the interchange fees, they aren’t required to report that spending on lobbying disclosure forms.

The retail lobby is also known for its hardball tactics. Politico recently reported an unnamed senator “referred high-pressured calls he received from retailers lobbying on the Durbin amendment to the Ethics Committee for further investigation? The nature of the calls: ‘Stay away from the effort to delay Durbin or we will crush you.'”

There’s a good reason for the retailers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in D.C. pushing the new limits on interchange fees: It will pay handsomely.

For instance, on a Feb. 22 conference call with financial analysts, Carol Tomé, Home Depot’s executive vice president for corporate services, said the company is expecting a $35 million per year windfall from the new law.

“Based on the Fed’s draft regulations, we think the benefit to The Home Depot could be $35 million a year,” Tomé said.

When you look at it that way, spending about $1 million a year on K Street, like Home Depot has over the last several years, doesn’t seem like such a bad deal.