WASHINGTON - Congress, pledging to clean up Washington's culture of corruption, approved a rule last year to end the practice of lobbyists or their clients throwing lavish events honoring lawmakers at the parties' national conventions.
But the House ethics committee opened a huge loophole in the rule by issuing guidelines in December saying it was fine for lobbyists or their employers to throw parties for a group of House members - just not for a single lawmaker.
That's why at the Democratic convention in Denver next week, Visa and US Bank will host an event honoring the freshman class of House Democrats. AT&T is among the sponsors of a party celebrating the conservative House Blue Dog Democrats on Sunday night.
Good-government groups say the decision undercuts the pledges by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders to curb the influence of lobbyists. The groups are urging lawmakers not to attend the events.
"In our view, any House member who goes to a party that honors a member or a group of members is violating the ethics rules," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform group. "It's a violation of the spirit, the language and the meaning of the provisions."
The Senate Ethics Committee came to the opposite conclusion from the House, issuing guidelines in February stating that Senate rules bar lobbyists and organizations that employ lobbyists from paying for events honoring a senator or a group of senators.
The decision in the House was not a partisan ruling. The ethics committee is composed of five Democrats and five Republicans. The committee's staff director did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Congress approved the new rules to end the practice at past conventions of committee chairs being honored at expensive parties paid for by companies they regulated. But the rules still leave plenty of opportunities for the well-connected to cozy up to lawmakers.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hosting "hospitality suites" where top donors can meet Pelosi and other House leaders. At the GOP convention, Honeywell, Citi and Anheuser-Busch have hospitality space to connect with politicians and VIPs. At both conventions, the host committees have invitation-only events for the corporations and unions that spent millions to help put on the conventions.
"These are all the same people who have a big lobbying presence in D.C., and they all have major issues before Congress and the executive branch," said Nancy Watzman, who is spearheading the Sunlight Foundation's Web site, www.politicalpartytime.org, which lists the convention parties and the sponsors.
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen plans to release a list today of some of the events it believes run afoul of the new ethics rules. For example, at the Republican convention, AT&T is co-sponsoring a reception for the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of moderate GOP lawmakers, an evening before the Republican convention begins Sept. 1 in St. Paul, Minn.
The group also singled out a party honoring members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus that is sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group.
Organizers of the events say they are adhering strictly to the guidelines laid out by the House ethics committee. Brad Luna, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said the panel specifically approved parties to honor a delegation or caucus of House members as long as no lawmaker is mentioned by name. "The rules they lay out are what we abide by," Luna said. AT&T did not respond to requests for comment about its convention events.
Craig Holman, who leads Public Citizen's Congress Watch, also is questioning the "AgNite" party at the GOP convention featuring the rock band Styx, an event sponsored by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council. The new ethics rules ban lawmakers and their staff from attending events free of charge - such as rock concerts or sporting events - that aren't part of their official duties.
"If it's a dinner or reception, you can have background music," Holman said of the event, which could draw 4,000 people. "I can't imagine Styx playing background music."
The council's president, Daryn McBeth, insists AgNite is a "semi-educational event in a party setting." The council's members will put up displays about their companies, while speakers, including an agricultural economist, will address topics ranging from hunger to biotechnology. But the council is also setting up stations so lawmakers can pay - $20 to listen to Styx and $5 each for two local bands - if they are worried about violating ethics rules.
Many of the receptions at the convention already are being affected by the "toothpick rule," which bans lawmakers and congressional aides from accepting free meals, but allows hors d'oeuvres. A party planner told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that planners had been advised by a lawyer that they could serve quesadillas, but only with cheese. Adding beef or chicken could constitute a meal, the lawyer said.
Still, the restrictions aren't dissuading party planners from hosting events: Already, more than 370 parties are planned for the two conventions.
The parties mostly fill a void in the schedule for delegates, politicians, lobbyists and party activists. "Conventions are not what they used to be," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance reform group. "The platform is written, the vice presidential nominee is chosen. What else are they going to do but party?"
But McGehee said the new ethics rules were meant to keep lawmakers from feeling like they owed something to the groups that threw them a party. "If someone throws you a birthday party, you appreciate it," she said. "If you're a moneyed interest, that gives you a big leg up on everyone else."
Congressional ethics rules - and reality
Rule: The "toothpick rule" bans lawmakers and congressional aides from accepting free meals.
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Exception: Hors d'oeuvres are allowed.
Result: GOP party planners were told by a lawyer that they could serve quesadillas, but only with cheese. Adding beef or chicken could constitute a meal, the lawyer said.
Rule: Lawmakers and their staff must pay to attend events such as rock concerts or sporting events that aren't part of their official duties.
Interpretation: They must pay face value for entertainment.
Result: "AgNite" party at the GOP convention features the band Styx. Sponsors are setting up stations so lawmakers can pay if they feel they should.
Parties at the conventions
A sampling of events at the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions that are sponsored by lobbyists or their clients:
Aug. 24: "Night in Denver" party honoring the Blue Dog Democrats - sponsored by AT&T and others.
Aug. 25: "Celebrating diversity" event with Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Asian Pacific American Caucus - sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign.
Aug. 26: Financial Literacy brunch - hosted by Allstate, Bank of America, Capital One, Charles Schwab, US Bank, Visa, Wells Fargo, Wachovia and others.
Aug. 27: Reception honoring the "Freshman Class" of House Democrats - sponsored by Visa and US Bank.
Aug. 27: Luncheon with Democratic governors - sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Edison Electric Institute.
Aug. 31: Reception for Republican Main Street Partnership, honoring moderate GOP members - sponsored by AT&T.
Aug. 31: Reception for California delegates - sponsored by AT&T.
Sept. 2: "Building Stable Communities" forum - sponsored by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Realtors.
Sept. 2: "AgNite" event featuring the rock band Styx - sponsored by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council
Sept. 3: Creative Coalition Gala Concert featuring the Charlie Daniels Band - sponsored by Target.
Convention "Wrap Party" - sponsored by lobbying firm Patton Boggs.
Source: Sunlight Foundation