Congressman, It's (Still) on Us: The Ethics Law's Many Loopholes

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Activists on the reform side of the lobbying debate have been celebrating that Congress finally got around to passing an ethics bill. The question is: Should voters celebrate as well?

Paul A. Miller, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists, thinks the hoorahs should be muted, and he has a point. The legislation bars lobbyists from providing meals and gifts to lawmakers, a provision long sought by the advocates of change as a way to keep well-heeled interests from buying their way into the hearts of decision-makers.

But Miller and others point out that the ban is full of loopholes. The largest of the gaps, Miller said, could end up worsening the public's perception that lawmakers are for sale.

If lobbyists are prevented from buying meals for lawmakers for lobbying purposes, he noted, lobbyists will almost certainly make up for the loss by boosting the number of meals they buy lawmakers as part of campaign fundraising events.

And believe it or not, they will be perfectly able to do so. Lobbying laws are separate from campaign finance laws, and the new ban on meals and gifts applies only to lobbying laws. That means the legislation does not rein in fundraising events, so lobbyists and their clients will still be able to buy food and entertainment for lawmakers at those events.

Hence the following perversity: Lobbyists will not be able to pick up the check for members of Congress unless they also hand the lawmakers a check to help their reelections.

"Lobbyists will move lunches and dinners to the campaign side of things," Miller predicts. "They will increasingly get members of Congress for an hour or so to give them a campaign check; that's a better deal for the lobbyists and will also make it more likely for corruption to happen."

Jan W. Baran, the campaign finance expert at the law firm Wiley Rein, finds it hard to imagine that lawmakers can schedule more fundraisers than they already do. But he does think there will continue to be plenty of lobbyist-financed partying thanks to the nearly two dozen exceptions to the meal-and-gift ban.

Baran said that members of Congress will be able to accept invitations from lobbyists to events that are widely attended, including receptions and charity golf tournaments. Lobbyists will also still be allowed to underwrite visits by lawmakers if they have some official or ceremonial role. Members of Congress generally cannot accept tickets to sporting events from lobbyists. But they can be comped to a baseball game if they throw out the first pitch, to a football game if they toss the opening coin or to a NASCAR race if they wave the checkered flag. That's nice work if you can get it, and you can bet there'll be a lot more of it available soon.

Interest groups are also expressing concern about another feature of the legislation. The provision would require more disclosure by organizations about who is paying for and actively participating in the lobbying activities of coalitions and trade groups. At the moment, most of that information is proprietary and protected by Supreme Court decisions that shield the members of many kinds of groups. Organizations are worried that they might, for the first time, have to disclose who their top members are.

But they probably need not worry. Ways are always found to get around laws like this one. "The balloon will be pressed, and the air will come out another way," said Kenneth A. Gross, a lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Play It Again, Sam -- No, Don't!

A group pushing for musicians and record companies to receive royalties for songs played on AM and FM radio deserves an award for the most misfired lobbying effort of the year.

President Bush held a town hall meeting at Nashville's Opryland hotel on July 19. One of his questioners was Al McCree, the 60-year-old owner of a record company that specializes in military music. When McCree was told that he might get a question, he saw the chance to press the case for the royalties. So he consulted by cellphone with Rich Bengloff, president of the American Association of Independent Music, and wrote out what he wanted to say.

Planned questions like this are a common though slightly unsavory lobbying practice because they are so transparently contrived. But usually they are done with at least some subtlety.

When McCree was called on, he rattled on about music as a major U.S. export and, in an incomprehensible way, mentioned China, Iran, North Korea and Rwanda in the same breath as the United States. When McCree finished, Bush looked perplexed and said amid gales of laughter, "Maybe you've never had a president say this -- I have, like, no earthly idea what you're talking about."

McCree said he was pleased. After all, his question landed him a segment on Fox News Channel. But, truth be told, that's not exactly the reaction you want from the capital's most powerful man.

The High Cost of Capitol Hill

A few readers thought I shortchanged them in my lead item three weeks ago. I wrote about the growing number of lobby groups and firms establishing outposts on Capitol Hill. But I did not say how much those townhouses cost these days.

Fair point. So here's the answer: about a million bucks. The American Academy of Audiology, based in Reston, recently bought a townhouse at 312 Massachusetts Ave. NE, four blocks from the Capitol. For two floors and a carriage house, it paid $950,000, according to Sydney H. Davis, an academy representative.

Sounds like a lot to me, but it's apparently a small price to pay for proximity to power. "Purchasing this office in DC will enhance the Academy's advocacy efforts, while being fiscally responsible with Academy resources," the organization declared on its Web site.

Hire of the Week

Ryan Modlin is a rarity among the congressional lobbyists at the National Association of Manufacturers. He's a Democrat in what has become known as a heavily Republican trade association.

Modlin is the group's new lobbyist for the House of Representatives -- a new post -- and he's also the first clear-cut Democrat among NAM's four-person congressional lobbying staff. Two of the others have Republican lineage, and the third comes from a politically unaffiliated trade association, a NAM spokesman said.

NAM, like every other business group in town, is trying to show how Democratic it can be -- and the organization is straining to say so. Modlin "is an excellent fit to expand our bipartisan lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill," said Jay Timmons, NAM's senior vice president of policy and government relations and former chief of staff to ex-senator George Allen (R-Va.).

Modlin previously worked at Artemis Strategies and before that for Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.). A Michigan native, Modlin graduated from the University of Michigan and the Michigan State University College of Law. NAM's president, John M. Engler, is a former governor of the state -- and a Republican.

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