By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
The lobbying disclosure bill passed by the House last week hadn't been voted on yet when Kenneth Gross stood at the head of a block-long conference room in New York, supplying 148 lobbyists and lawyers with the new congressional definition of a friend.
"Friendships have been breaking out all over Washington, because they bring the gift limit up from zero to $250," Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said he told the group.
The House ethics committee, he said, defines a lawmaker-lobbyist friendship as a long-term relationship featuring mutual gift-giving. The lobbyist must select gifts specially for that lawmaker, and not claim them as an expense or tax deduction.
"There are people in my life I'm just not sure about," Gross said.
When newly elected Democratic leaders promised tougher House and Senate ethics rules last year, some lobbyists predicted the plan would be but a ripple in a glass of champagne for an industry skilled at catering to congressional needs and wants.
Then came last week's bill, and a sobering realization: For the first time, lobbyists will be held personally accountable for obeying dozens of complicated contribution, gift, travel, and sponsorship rules. Jail time, a remote but unnerving new prospect, has K Street working to interpret the rules.
With lawmakers back this week from Memorial Day recess, some angry lobbyists vow to do what they're paid to do: persuade members to change the bill before it becomes law in July.
"It's going to be very important to us to bring to Congress certain areas where they made a mistake," Tom Susman, a lawyer at Ropes & Gray, told attendees at an American League of Lobbyists meeting last week on interpreting the rules. "There is some stupid stuff, some silly stuff, and I think it ought to be clarified."
Lobbying league members were furious that members did not allow them much input into the rules, or how to comply. "They passed this because they thought it was good for the Republic," said one. "But they'll still call and say 'Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?' "
Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer with Foley & Lardner, was more blunt. "You remember 'Lysistrata?' " she asked, a Greek play about women who get their men to stop warring by denying them sex. "We know how to end this war. . . . You could just not put out" campaign money.
The legislation slated to take effect this summer makes golf dates, beach picnics and ball games with lobbyists the new risky behavior. With lobbyist-paid dining to be all but banned, gone is the pizza sent by lobbyists to treat Hill staffers working late on appropriations bills. Savvy House staffers now know that the popular rooftop party spot over Charlie Palmer's restaurant is fully visible from the window of offices of the House ethics committee -- whose members can act on what they see.
Laurence Bory, corporate lobbyist at HDR, an architectural firm that handles big federal projects, attended a lobbyist breakfast at the Monocle restaurant near the Capitol last month with a congressional committee chairman who "ate breakfast at home, came with his own coffee mug, and told us his staff advised him that he shouldn't accept a refill," Bory recalled.
The Motion Picture Association of America deploys its legal team to ensure the screenings it hosts once or twice a week in its private 80-seat theatre are not merely entertaining. A hot ticket on the Hill, the screenings must include, if a meal is served, a diversified crowd of 25, a business-related component and subject matter geared to the duties of any lawmakers invited.
The ethics changes began on the first day of the new Congress, when the House enacted rules banning gifts, meals and travel from lobbyists. A Senate bill followed suit, and included a host of other measures built into the House bill passed just before last week's recess.
The House rules took effect as the law firm Holland & Knight was organizing its February new members' welcome. Staffers took plans before the House and Senate ethics committees.
"They made it very clear: 'finger food,' " recalled Holland & Knight lawyer Rich Gold. "'No sandwiches, nothing that would be considered a meal. You don't want people sitting down.' "
"So we took that to the ultimate."
Invitations included the message "Holland & Knight has consulted with the House and Senate ethics committees regarding this event's compliance with applicable House and Senate Rules." For 1,000 members, staffers, lawyers and clients mingling to the strains of a jazz trio among the Corinthian columns of the Cannon House office building's Caucus Room, "there was nowhere to sit, there was nowhere to even to put a drink down," Gold said. Attendees ate hors d'oeuvres with their hands.
"I'm pessimistic," Gold said. "For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction, and that will happen here."
As an example, he cites the provision requiring quarterly disclosure of campaign contributions "bundled" by lobbyists and delivered to lawmakers. Because the rule applies only to raising more than $5,000, "You'll see 30-minute breakfasts for $4,995," Gold predicts. "I call it the Speed Dating provision."
The House and Senate ethics committees have declined to comment on the rules, but do offer to interpret them for members and lobbyists.
New travel rules say members cannot be gone more than overnight, unless distance makes it necessary. They must answer 23 detailed questions about the trip on forms submitted to ethics staffers 30 days in advance. Lobbyists cannot arrange the trip, go along or provide a corporate plane. In the Senate, corporate jets will be allowed for campaign travel, but only if the senator pays the hefty equivalent of charter fare.
That pretty much kills the Association of American Railroads' annual legislative conference. Last winter the trade group flew 15 members and their spouses to Naples, Fla., for a weekend of briefings, shopping, sunning, golf and dinners. Now, the group will brief members in their offices. "It's a lot more legwork," said spokeswoman Peggy Nasir. On trips, "you could get a four- to five-hour block of time, where in the office you would never get that much."
For small lobbying firm mCapitol Management, the proposed law ignores a key lobbying tactic, and all but outlaws America's favorite pastime. Company president Gary LaPaille said his firm organizes grass-roots campaigns in which "constituents call in or write in and be the influencer." An amendment to unmask the lobbyists behind those campaigns failed.
But the rules do ban any gift over $10 in the House, and soon will in the Senate, leaving LaPaille with four empty Nationals box seats for every game. He called the team box office, where "If you give them 72 hours' notice they'll sell them for you," he said.
At Ken Gross's presentation in New York, the gift rules caused much confusion. The $10 limit covers all lobbyist gifts to members, unless they are friends, or betrothed -- "there must be an offer and acceptance," Gross said. Food is forbidden, except for home-state products. Only three items are allowed to exceed the $10 value limit: baseball caps, T-shirts and greeting cards. In quarterly reports, searchable online, lobbyists must certify that they have complied with the rules.
According to Gross: "You can give a coffee mug under $10, but you can't put coffee in it unless it's a home-district product. Even then, the coffee should be in grain form."