When House Changed Rules for Travel, He Lobbied for the Lobbyists

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Loopholes in laws and regulations sometimes seem to appear by magic, and often no one wants to claim to be the magician. But one man actually wants credit for a couple of big loopholes in the new ethics rules the House passed last month: John H. Graham IV.

Graham is the president of an organization that could exist only in Washington -- the American Society of Association Executives. In other words, he is the chief lobbyist for lobbyists.

His organization represents 22,000 association executives, from large groups such as the American Medical Association and small ones such as the Barbershop Harmony Society. When any of them are in danger of losing access to lawmakers, Graham, 57, is supposed to intervene.

Which is what he did -- proudly -- as soon as he learned that Democratic leaders wanted to ban travel provided by lobbyists and the entities that employ them. Graham dispatched his own lobbyists and several of his most sympathetic allies to meet with House staffers. Eventually they poked two gigantic holes in the proposed prohibition.

The first opened the way for lobbyists to pay for short trips -- one day as far as the Midwest and two days to the West Coast. The second permits colleges to provide travel to lawmakers without restriction, even though they lobby in Washington a lot. (See the next item.)

Ethics advocates were disappointed. "The better policy is no privately financed travel," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center.

But Graham was unabashed. Golf trips to Scotland should be nixed, he said, but not visits to taxpayer-funded programs or to industry-backed seminars. "We didn't want a total ban on travel," Graham said. "We were on top of it from the very beginning."

In fact, he and his lobbyists started their campaign a year ago after then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) first suggested a travel ban. That effort failed partly because of Graham's enterprise.

After the Democratic victory in last year's midterm elections, Graham's lobbyists -- Senior Vice President Jim Clarke and contract lobbyist James W. Rock -- targeted the staff of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and then met with aides to Democratic House leaders Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and James E. Clyburn (S.C.).

After one such meeting, Graham learned that the ban would prevent lawmakers from taking trips to colleges to give commencement addresses. He quickly asked the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities to join the crusade.

Graham also recruited other groups with sterling reputations, including the American Heart Association, the YMCA of the USA and the American Cancer Society. They went as a group from office to office on Capitol Hill and made the case that brief trips could not be mistaken for boondoggles, especially when white-hat interests like themselves were footing the bill.

The result: Graham has become Mr. Loophole, winning the exemptions and on track to getting them in the Senate as well.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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