(Bloomberg News) The largest U.S. private-equity funds and venture capital firms have relied on a five-year, multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to protect the carried interest tax break that helped drive presidential candidate Mitt Romney's 2010 effective tax rate below 14 percent.

With the issue gaining attention in this year's U.S. presidential election campaign, the investment industry is again girding to defend its preferential tax treatment. Blackstone Group LP alone spent $5 million in 2011 lobbying Congress on issues including the tax treatment of carried interest.

"If anything preserves the status quo, it will be the very heavy lobbying campaign," said Edward Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California. "There's no other reason for the subsidy to survive."

Opponents of the tax rate for carried interest see this as an opportunity to press for change. Romney released his 2010 tax returns on Jan. 24, revealing he paid an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent on income of $21.6 million.

Romney, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts and co-founder of Bain Capital LLC, has come to personify the debate over whether the carried interest paid to private-equity managers should be taxed at the capital gains rate of 15 percent while ordinary income is taxed at rates as high as 35 percent.

Tax Fairness Debate

Democrats view the carried interest issue as an element of the tax fairness theme that President Barack Obama is highlighting in his re-election campaign. Representative Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, plans to introduce a bill as soon as this week that would tax carried interest at the same rate as regular income, according to spokesman Josh Drobnyk. The bill probably won't advance in the Republican-controlled chamber this year.

Carried interest is the profits-based compensation that private-equity managers, real estate investors and members of oil and gas partnerships often receive. They get a portion of their clients' earnings as investment income if the underlying earnings are treated that way. Levin and Obama call carried interest compensation for work, which they say should be viewed like wages for tax purposes.

Private-equity firms invested more than $148 billion in 1,234 U.S.-based companies in 2010, according to the Private Equity Growth Capital Council. The industry says it employs more than 8 million people.

Washington Lobbyists

Companies opposed to changing the tax treatment of carried interest have hired veteran Washington lobbyists to make their case. Wayne Berman of Ogilvy Government Relations is Blackstone's top lobbyist on the issue. He was an assistant commerce secretary during George H.W. Bush's administration. Other Ogilvy lobbyists working for Blackstone include Drew Maloney, who was a staffer for former House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and Moses Mercado, the former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt's deputy chief of staff.

Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. hired former Representative Vic Fazio, a California Democrat, to work with Congress on "tax issues affecting private-equity firms and their portfolio companies," according to lobbying records. The New York-based private-equity company spent $150,000 in the fourth quarter on lobbyists from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld to work on issues that included tax policy.

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