Published on Sunday, July 30, 2000 in the Washington Post
Corporate America Foots The Bill To 'Salute' GOP Lawmakers
by Mike Allen
PHILADELPHIA - At a reception in the grand Beaux Arts lobby of a bank a few blocks from the Republican National Convention, tuxedoed waiters will push mint juleps through brass-barred teller windows to members of the House banking committee. Among those footing the bill for Monday evening's reception will be the American Bankers Association, Wells Fargo and First Union.
The next night, the Federal Tax Policy Group of PricewaterhouseCoopers, along with the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America and three other sponsors, will hold a reception that is designed, according to the invitation, "to salute Chairman Bill Archer and the Republican members of the Committee on Ways and Means," the House tax-law writers.
And on Wednesday, Time Warner Inc., Walt Disney Co., Viacom Inc. and other sponsors from the entertainment industry will offer a night of Latin music at the Shampoo Night Club, "honoring Congressman Mark Foley and the House Entertainment Industry Task Force."
Political conventions have long been about parties, in more ways than one. But this year's gatherings, both here and at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles next month, are dominated more than ever by "tributes" and "salutes" aimed at specific lawmakers and paid for by corporations with pressing business before them.
The social calendar for the hours before and after each night's podium session are crammed with such events, honoring individual lawmakers, state delegations and even entire committees.
For the lawmakers, the soirees represent a cost-free way to thank supporters and to cozy up to others who might back them in the future. And for the companies picking up the tab, the tributes are a golden opportunity to curry favor with lawmakers with massive influence over their businesses, allowing companies to shower politicians with benefits far in excess of the amounts the companies could give directly to a campaign.
Jefrey Pollock of Global Strategy Group Inc., a market researcher and Democratic pollster, said lobbyists and lawmakers see such entertainment as "a way of going back to the fun days of the '50s and '60s, when lobbying rules were looser and the money was flowing."
"These huge parties are an extraordinarily effective way of getting your point across, and it's all hidden from the public," Pollock said.
The part of the four-day convention that is open to television viewers--the speeches, the roll calls, the star-spangled hats and purses--opens Monday. But the private partying begins Sunday night, when the Temptations will perform, courtesy of DaimlerChrysler Corp. and nine other sponsors, at a reception honoring Rep. J.C. Watts (Okla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Two days later, Lucent Technologies Inc. will honor Watts at a reception "recognizing the accomplishments and achievements of minorities in the Republican Party."
Watts, a former University of Oklahoma quarterback who twice was rated the most valuable player in the Orange Bowl, said the wide news coverage of the convention provides a chance for the Republican Party "to put our product on the shelf--education, Social Security, tax fairness and tax relief."
And, he said, "it's a good time for vendors to put their product on the shelf as well."
Watts said the hospitality would have no effect on his decisions on Capitol Hill. "If they're right, heck, I'll do 'em the way I do anybody else," he said. "If they're not, I'll be able to step up to the plate and tell them that."
AT&T Corp.--the giant of wireless, cable and long-distance service--is co-sponsoring at least six major events at the convention, including the Lott Hop, a '50s-themed tribute to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.). The master of ceremonies will be former "American Bandstand" host Dick Clark, whose show originated from Philadelphia. The Four Tops, the Shirelles and Bobby Vee and the Vees will perform.
About 1,500 guests will be invited to indulge themselves at "Splish, Splash" beverage stations and "Reach Out" pizza bars. As with many of the lavish convention salutes, the special-events planner--in this case, Hayes and Associates of McLean--set up a separate phone line and e-mail account just for RSVPs.
One lobbyist said AT&T was dismayed by the outcome of the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996 and wants to make a big political play as a "prophylactic" for future legislative overhauls.
Jim McGann, AT&T's government affairs spokesman, said all the entertaining is "a good opportunity for us to discuss informally with folks what's going on with the industry and with AT&T."
Congressional ethics rules do little to inhibit the largess. The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has this to say about events in honor of a member: "As long as the identity of the sponsor (that is, the person that is organizing and paying for the event) is made clear to all participants (e.g., on the invitations), an event nominally 'in honor of' a Member or group of Members is not generally considered a gift to the honoree(s)."
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics says such events are permissible as long as they are widely attended, which is defined as an event to which "at least 25 noncongressional attendees are invited."
Longtime Capitol Hill ethics staffers said they cannot remember a complaint involving entertainment at political conventions.
The "in honor of" celebrations come in several flavors. The most common is the straight tribute, such as the "luncheon honoring Denny Hastert," the House speaker, that former representative Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) and his law firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is holding, with sponsorship by AT&T and seven other benefactors.
Similar events will dot the calendar for the Democratic convention. The Edison Electric Institute and 16 energy companies, for example, will host a brunch at the well-known restaurant Spago in Beverly Hills for Rep. Albert R. Wynn (Md.).
Some of the events allow the public official to play the gracious host. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams requests the pleasure of invitees' company "at lunch in honor of the . . . Republican elected officials of the District of Columbia," sponsored by Lockheed Martin IMS, which has the District's contract for the cameras at intersections that allow the automated issuance of citations for red light violations.
Many of the events have a theme. Eleven financial institutions and associations that want looser limits on contributions to individual retirement accounts are throwing an "IRA-Palooza," subtitled "the Philadelphia Financial Freedom Stash-Your-Cash Bash." The invitation says the event is "honoring the contributions to savings" of eight Senate and House leaders.
Some planners throw in celebrities. Hank Williams Jr. will headline a cocktail buffet being held to "celebrate" with "elected Republican officials from the states where General Motors Corp. is proud to have facilities." A few days later, Wayne K. Cherry, GM's vice president for design, is scheduled to lead a lunch and "Car Chat" in honor of Hastert.
With so many spectacular events being held during just a few days, the pressure to outdo is immense. Michigan Gov. John Engler, who will hold a "Republican Bandstand" sponsored by a dozen firms, was one of three officials who had the idea of sending invitations shaped like 45-rpm records, complete with a sleeve.
The most obvious social showdown is between two competitors to be the next chairman of the House Commerce Committee: Reps. Michael G. Oxley (Ohio) and W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (La.).
Oxley is holding a $400,000 "Salute to the House Commerce Committee" at the original sound stage for "American Bandstand," with a concert featuring Frankie Avalon, Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell. Dick Clark, who had a dozen requests but is doing just two events during the convention, will be the host. About 800 guests will dine on chili dogs, shoestring potatoes and Coke floats.
At least half a dozen of those sponsors are also underwriting a Mardi Gras street fair "honoring our favorite Cajun, Billy Tauzin," who is competing with Oxley to succeed Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.). Bliley is stepping down as Commerce Committee chairman because of the House's self-imposed term limits on chairmanships.
AT&T is a co-sponsor of a separate "salute to the House Commerce Committee with a special tribute to Chairman Tom Bliley."
Although it is not as large as some of the other bashes, one of the week's most-talked-about events may be a $30,000 martini and cigar night honoring Rep. David Dreier (Calif.), chairman of the House Rules Committee, with AT&T and two other firms as sponsors. The invitation came in a cigar box, and the party favors will include silver-plated martini glasses.
"It may not be politically correct, but it is very chic," said Brad Smith, Dreier's chief of staff. "We expect a long line."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company