'Distinguished Gentleman, May I Have Her Hand . . .?'

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The new ethics law has K Street in an uproar. Questions about what is and what is not permitted have flooded into law firms.

When Patton Boggs sent out invitations to a two-hour briefing on the law recently, it expected a decent turnout. It did not foresee that more than 100 lobbyists would jam the firm's largest meeting room beyond its capacity.

That occurrence has repeated itself at law firms all over town.

The statute mandates a less cozy relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists. Lobbyist-provided meals, entertainment and travel are, for the most part, banned. Serious consequences, including possible jail time, loom for scofflaws.

As a result, lobby groups are scrutinizing their spending. "We will certainly look closely at expense accounts," said Dan Danner of the National Federation of Independent Business. The federation will also provide ethics education to its Washington employees. "Everyone will have to go to training and to certify that they attended and understand the rules," Danner said.

Gray areas remain. But one expert, Darryl D. Nirenberg of Patton Boggs, has researched a particularly knotty situation and believes it may change Washington's dating rituals forever.

The ethics law bars lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers or their aides. What happens, then, if a lobbyist wants to give a staffer a very special gift -- an engagement ring? Is that allowed?

No, it's not, Nirenberg says. But that's not the end of the story. A senator can grant a waiver of the gift ban, subject to review by the ethics committee. In the House, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct can waive the rule, and does so routinely.

"So, if you want to give your girlfriend who works in the Senate an engagement ring, you are going to have to ask permission from not only her father, but also from her senator, and maybe from the ethics committee, too," Nirenberg says.

Now that's what I call congressional privilege!

Staying Cool on K

The Air Conditioning Contractors of America want to make sure that members of Congress feel well taken care of.

That's why the group has a Hot Team. If a lawmaker's home air conditioner is on the fritz, all he or she has to do is call the association and the Hot Team will send a local repair contractor ASAP. A truck is usually dispatched within an hour.

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