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There's Always a Way
Exemptions From Ethics Rules Allow Lawmakers to Accept Almost Anything

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.

During the past five years, members of Congress have received $18.3 million worth of travel at the expense of private organizations, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research service. That includes 628 lawmakers who made 6,242 trips, 57 percent of which were taken by Democrats.

The most popular destinations were vacation spots, according to a study by the Medill News Service and American Public Media, which produces programs for public radio stations. From January 2000 to mid-2004, No. 1 was Florida with more than 500 trips, followed by California with nearly 400 trips and New York with more than 300. West Virginia, home to the Greenbrier resort, was the fourth most popular destination, with more than 200 trips. These were permitted because they were connected to "official duties" -- one of the requirements that the ethics rules impose on privately paid trips.

At least 850 of these trips were paid for by organizations with one or more registered lobbyists on their boards, the Medill study said.

Charity events also provide a sanctioned way to funnel otherwise forbidden perks to lawmakers and staffers. For years, the National Federation of Independent Business sponsored a golf outing for congressional staffers. When gift limits were imposed nine years ago, the event had to be canceled. A couple of years later, however, it came back stronger than ever as a charity tournament. The reason: Events that benefit good causes are exempted from the gift rules.

"It needed to be a widely attended charity event in order for staff to participate," said Donald A. Danner, executive vice president of the NFIB. "So we decided to make our charity Habitat for Humanity and we were back in business." Home Depot, the National Restaurant Association and the law firm Arent Fox helped sponsor this year's NFIB Summer Classic, which provided free golf and food to more than 40 congressional aides.

Lawmakers can no longer solicit, and political parties can't accept, soft money -- those large, unregulated donations that for years had helped candidates in elections. They can now collect only "hard money" -- strictly limited amounts that go directly into election coffers. But they can still attract large sums for other purposes -- very worthy ones, they insist -- such as self-named academic institutions. Companies with interest in legislation have trouble saying no.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), former chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's communications subcommittee, helped start the Burns Telecom Center at Montana State University in 1993. Its national advisory board is a pretty good sampling of firms that have both donated to the center and lobby Congress on telecommunications issues, including representatives of two telephone companies, a media conglomerate, a radio broadcaster and a software maker.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) also has an academic outlet named for him -- the Trent Lott National Center for Excellence in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Mississippi. According to the center's Web site, givers of $100,000 or more get "exclusive" invitations to attend "a private breakfast with Senator Lott." (After The Washington Post asked about the offer, the site was taken down and a Lott aide said the senator had never agreed to the breakfast.)

The most common method of assisting lawmakers' reelections while also contributing to their personal entertainment is the campaign fundraiser. Most are pedestrian affairs that feature finger food and a quick reception line at an eatery or office near the Capitol. The office of Associated General Contractors of America houses about 100 fundraisers annually because it's nearby.

But barely a week passes when at least one out-of-town fundraising event doesn't entice contributors with golf, a boat excursion or skiing. The House Republicans' event list between mid-July and mid-August advertises 12 golf outings, four baseball games, a musical show and a night of "champagne and caviar."

The competition for donors is so intense that lawmakers try to outdo each other with innovative fundraising come-ons. Four members of the House Ways and Means Committee held what they called a "block party" to make it easier for lobbyists to drop off checks. The lawmakers, who live on the same block on Capitol Hill, each offered a different alcoholic beverage to donors as they stopped by on the same evening this spring.

"There are 20 to 40 fundraisers a day that people have a chance to go to, and they can't make them all," said Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who conceived and benefited from the block party. "You want to make sure yours stands out and that people say, 'That's fun!' "

That's clearly what Crapo is shooting for with the Hook & Bullet. But his donors, who pay separately for their travel and much of their recreation, see lobbying advantages as well. An unidentified woman on Crapo's DVD puts it this way: "It's a lot of fun to be with Mike and his family and to get to know him better and to spend more time with the staff."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company