WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., stepped forward last week to give his home-state tobacco industry a softer landing if it becomes regulated, he was helping a business that's given him a boost as well.
Tobacco groups and employees have given $355,000 in campaign contributions to Burr since he first got elected to Congress in 1995, election records shows.
That's second only to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, from tobacco-growing Kentucky, who has accepted $390,000 from the industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Burr's top overall contributor, with $194,000 in donations, is R.J. Reynolds Tobacco and its parent company, which is based in the senator's hometown, Winston-Salem. The nation's No. 2 tobacco company makes Camel, Pall Mall and Kool cigarettes, among others. About 65,000 people are employed in the tobacco industry in North Carolina.
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“Senator Burr has represented the state for a long time, either in the Senate or the House, and I think through that long representation he has done an excellent job of being receptive to business issues of all types,” said Maura Payne, a spokeswoman for Reynolds American. “Given that receptivity, we have supported his campaigns.”
Burr spokesman Chris Walker says the campaign donations don't influence his policy agenda.
"It's not something that comes into any equations here," Walker said. “It doesn't really affect what we're doing legislatively.”
The influence of money in politics is difficult to gauge when an industry is prominent in a lawmaker's region, watchdogs say.
“It's hard to isolate the influence of campaign contributions when they are coming from a home-state industry,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, which tracks money in politics. “While some might see this as a congressman supporting campaign contributors, the contrary view would be that he's looking out for his constituents and their jobs.”
Walker said Burr, along with freshman Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., proposed the bill because he opposes another version that would put tobacco under the regulation of the Food and Drug Administration. That legislation, proposed by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and similar to a bill supported by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is expected to come up for a vote in the House in coming weeks.
Burr and Hagan's bill instead would put the regulation under a newly created agency devoted to tobacco products, and restrict labeling and advertising.
Burr has said the FDA already has its hands full trying to keep food safe.
Payne said the company thinks the Burr bill is a “better starting point.”
“It gives the Congress an option in terms of not just whether to regulate the tobacco industry but how best to do so,” she said.
Anti-smoking advocates are opposed to the Burr alternative, saying the FDA is the only agency with the scientific expertise to regulate a product like tobacco.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, also said it doesn't give regulators the authority to restrict the ingredients of tobacco products.
He's optimistic that Waxman's bill, which passed the House last year with 326 votes, also will pass the Senate.
That vote is one of many signs that tobacco doesn't have the pull it used to in Washington.
This year, Congress used a 62-cent increase in the tobacco tax to pay for a children's health insurance program. Now, N.C. Gov. Bev Perdue is proposing a $1 per pack increase to help with budgetary woes.
Myers said the tobacco industry still has “significant power” but doesn't represent anywhere close to the majority of either house of Congress.
“The tobacco's industry's contributions and its support increasingly depend upon a smaller number of intense supporters,” he said.
The industry has spent fewer dollars on congressional campaigns in recent years, with a peak of $10.6 million in 1996, down to $4.1 million in 2008.
“Their money is hard to take because you open yourself up to criticism for it,” Ritsch said. Hagan got $19,450 from tobacco contributors in 2008. Defeated Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., got $51,000.