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'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.

The lawmaker has to pay for the repairs, of course. But the rapid service -- something that's hard for regular Joes to obtain, especially in the summer -- is a special courtesy for very special people.

It also helps the air-conditioning industry get its points across. The association routinely sends one of its lobbyists to the assisted lawmaker's office to make sure that he or she received satisfactory service. "Then, if they have time to talk about legislative issues, we do," said Paul T. Stalknecht, the association's president.

"We take advantage of the situation by following up," he said. "We've been able to get the ear of a congressman or senator on a very fast, informal basis."

Pretty cool -- or too hot for its own good?

Mark the Calendar Now

It's apparently never too early to think about -- and therefore to lobby on -- big-dollar pieces of legislation. That's the only explanation I can think of for an invitation several reporters received recently from a group called Americans for Transportation Mobility. (Is there such a thing as transportation immobility? Maybe on I-95, I guess.)

Kara Gerhardt Ross, a spokeswoman who works for Qorvis Communications, announced via e-mail a breakfast discussion to mark "the two-year countdown to the expiration of the current transportation reauthorization bill."

So set your alarm clocks. SAFETEA-LU, as aficionados call the thing, will expire Sept. 30, 2009. It's never too early to worry!

Bush's Friends -- and Foes

President Bush clearly needs all the friends he can get. But he's made an enemy of a business alliance that backed one of his least popular initiatives this year: the ill-fated immigration bill.

The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition lobbied hard for Bush's comprehensive proposal. But several of its top members, including the Chamber of Commerce, have joined a lawsuit that seeks to halt the Bush administration's crackdown on the hiring of illegal immigrants. The program, now on hold, would send letters to businesses warning that they are required to fire workers who fail to resolve discrepancies in their paperwork or face potential fines and criminal liability.

The suit, which is also backed by labor unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, accuses the Department of Homeland Security of exceeding its authority and misusing a Social Security database in a way that could lead to workplace discrimination against law-abiding workers, including native-born Americans and legal immigrants.

Coalition members are not happy about fighting their old friends in the White House. But they also say they have no choice.

"They're doing what they have to do and we're doing what we have to do; we have to represent our members," said John F. Gay, chief lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, a leader of the coalition. "We always opposed enforcement-only solutions because it wouldn't solve the problem."

Then again, he said, "what about the immigration issue would ever make you think that it was normal?"

Hire of the Week

The law firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal has given unprecedented power to lobbyists.

It recently named Frederick D. McClure, a former top White House lobbyist, as the managing partner of its 100-lawyer D.C. office.

Back in March, Elliott I. Portnoy, the founder and former head of Sonnenschein's lobbying practice in Washington, became chairman of the entire 700-lawyer firm. Portnoy is not only the first lobbyist to chair the firm, he is also the first chairman to come from outside Chicago, where the firm was founded in 1906.

McClure, who worked for former president George H.W. Bush and came to Sonnenschein in 2004, remains part of the lobbying department. His promotion, he said, "is a good statement about people who do what I do professionally."

Separately, the head of the D.C. office of Alston & Bird, Frank " Rusty" Conner, has jumped to DLA Piper as the co-head of its D.C. office. He's bringing Thomas M. Boyd, who led Alston & Bird's lobbying practice. Boyd will run DLA Piper's lobby shop with former Michigan governor James J. Blanchard.

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