Convention Party Favors Include Face Time

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Congress just completed ethics legislation designed to put distance between lawmakers and the interests that seek favors from them.

But the people in charge of next summer's presidential nominating conventions are busy selling package deals that would put them closer together.

The host committees of 2008's biggest political gatherings are soliciting corporations, wealthy individuals and others with a lot at stake in government decisions for seven-figure payments. In exchange, the givers receive all sorts of goodies, including access to lawmakers and other politicians. The more money the donors spend, the more access they get. Donors also garner valuable publicity for their businesses and the convention's locale, which has its own commercial payoff.

Microsoft and AT&T, to name two, have been high-profile donors to the host committees of previous conventions.

At the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, donors of $5 million or more will receive (among many other things) a private dinner and a separate golf outing with the Republican leadership, according to a list of benefits distributed by the host committee.

At the Democratic convention in Denver, a million-dollar contribution purchases invitations to a series of private events that feature Colorado's governor, Denver's mayor and members of the state's congressional delegation, among other special advantages.

The host committees do not hide their cash-for-access offers; they flaunt them. "As a corporate sponsor, you will be invited to exclusive forums and special events where you will interact with our state's and the nation's government and business leaders," the Democratic solicitation states. "In financial terms, your sponsorship is an investment in the future."

The host committees, which are run by local officials separate from the political parties, collect the tens of millions of dollars needed to put on the extravaganzas, which next year will take place for the Democrats in late August and for the Republicans in early September.

Yet the marketing comes at a sensitive time. Congress just passed -- and President Bush is likely to sign into law soon -- a bill that aims to restrain the amount of influence lobbyists and their clients will have at the conventions.

The legislation aims to stop lobbyists and lobbying groups from paying for lavish parties that honor the lawmakers and the congressional committees they are hired to influence most. Such parties, a staple of the previous conventions, have been criticized by government-reform groups as giving undue clout to interests that have lots of money.

But the bill is silent about other kinds of parties and events, including those put on by the host committees. And those not only will continue but also appear likely to proliferate.

Top givers to the GOP convention are invited to a private reception that will include Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Norm Coleman and local mayors. They also will have the right to advertise in prime locations throughout the Twin Cities.

The biggest contributors to the Democratic convention get invitations to all events sponsored by the host committee and special recognition in all host-committee publications.

The nominating conventions, which are held in the late summer before presidential elections, have offered similar benefits packages before. Sponsors are the primary source for the money needed to put on these massive events, which bring together delegates from every state, a who's who of the nation's political establishment and journalists from around the world.

Host committee representatives said they are promoting their cities and are seeking funds from corporations and others who want to make an impression locally and to a large national audience. Acting as a go-between for lawmakers and the interests that want to persuade them is a much more minor concern, they say.

"We're not here to put on a bunch of parties to honor a bunch of individual members" of Congress, said Jeff Larson, interim chairman of the Minneapolis-St. Paul host committee. "We want to promote the quality of life we have here in Minnesota."

"We're reaching out to a lot of constituencies, not just members of Congress," said Elbra Wedgeworth, president of the Denver host committee. "We are hoping to promote the Rocky Mountain west."

Washington gadflies, however, see more calculation than that. Easy access to lawmakers and other senior Washington officials, they say, has long been a major attraction of these conventions and will remain so despite the recent legislation.

"It's ironic given that the last thing Congress did before the August break is pass lobbying reform that included a provision limiting the parties that can be thrown at these conventions," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "That would suggest that they didn't mean it, which will really come as a surprise to no one."


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