There's Always a Way

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

A lushly produced video on DVD arrived in lobbyists' mailboxes all over Washington this summer. In it, Sen. Michael D. Crapo narrates what amounts to a sales pitch for them to pay $2,500 each to party with him later this month in beautiful Sun Valley, Idaho.

"We shoot all day. We fish all day. We ride horses all day. And then we finish the day with the best barbecue in the West," the Idaho Republican boasts. "Frankly, I think this is the best event in the country."

For many years, Congress has regularly responded to the public's anger over the power of moneyed interests by reining in campaign donations and limiting the ways that lobbyists can enrich the lawmakers they're paid to influence. But lawmakers and lobbyists have often found ways to get around the restrictions -- on "soft money," on gifts, on travel and the like. What lobbyists get is extra access to federal decision-makers that average citizens rarely have.

For example, congressional rules prohibit a lobbyist or any other outsider from spending more than $100 a year to feed or entertain a federal lawmaker or any of his staffers. But the "Crapo Hook & Bullet" event is exempt from the limitation because it's a campaign fundraiser. Governmental ethics rules don't govern election financing.

"One of the capital's great ironies is that lobbyists can't treat lawmakers to golf or an expensive meal unless they're handing over a check for the congressman's election or for his charity, which, of course, only compounds the problem," said Bill Allison, editor-at-large for the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. "Some of the most outrageous things that happen in Washington are perfectly within the rules."

In recent months, the patchwork of rules has prompted new ethical questions. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has asked the ethics committee to determine whether he wrongly took trips abroad paid for by registered lobbyists. And Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, is facing a federal grand jury probe into his relationship with a defense contractor on whose yacht he lived rent-free.

But such investigations are rare because overt impropriety is so simple to avoid.

For instance, no one would have any legal cause to question the day in May that Cunningham and 20 or so other lawmakers spent shooting trap and skeet in suburban Maryland. The lobbyist-filled event was free for the legislators and was paid for by the Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation, a $1.5 million-a-year organization funded by $25,000 contributions from, among others, a gun manufacturer, a sporting-goods association, a defense contractor, a tobacco producer, a cable company, an electric utility and a forest products giant.

Because the event was "widely attended" and "educational" -- requirements spelled out in federal rules -- it wasn't subject to the gift limits, according to Jeff Crane, the foundation's president. Lawmakers such as Cunningham (a former fighter pilot who won a trophy for being the day's "top gun") were able to "have a fun day to shoot shotguns" without worrying about the cost, Crane said.

Legislators say they are obliged to raise funds for their reelections and stay informed about policy issues. So, they argue, it makes sense for them to take advantage of the leeway that the rules give them to make that happen.

The sportsmen's foundation is only one of several nonprofit groups that cater to congressional caucuses by holding seminars and other events. The Congressional Economic Leadership Institute, which works closely with the Competitiveness Caucus, offers several trips a year, including a visit for congressional aides to Las Vegas. The trip is partly paid for by the American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's chief lobby.

Registered lobbyists are barred from paying for lawmakers' travel. DeLay has been accused of breaching that rule because lobbyist Jack Abramoff put charges for an overseas trip on his credit card. But lobbyists' clients and the groups their clients support are allowed to host lawmakers' trips and do so often, usually to lovely places.

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