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Getting Around Rules on Lobbying

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By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

In recent days, about 100 members of Congress and hundreds of Hill staffers attended two black-tie galas, many of them as guests of corporations and lobbyists that paid as much as $2,500 per ticket.

Because accepting such gifts from special interests is now illegal, the companies did not hand the tickets directly to lawmakers or staffers. Instead, the companies donated the tickets back to the charity sponsors, with the names of recipients they wanted to see and sit with at the galas.

The arrangement was one of the most visible efforts, but hardly the only one, to get around new rules passed by Congress this summer limiting meals, travel, gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists and companies that employ them.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) found bipartisan agreement on maintaining one special privilege. Together they put language into a defense appropriations bill that would keep legal the practice of some senators of booking several flights on days they return home, keeping the most convenient reservation and dumping the rest without paying cancellation fees -- a practice some airlines say could violate the new law.

Senators also have granted themselves a grace period on requirements that they pay pricey charter rates for private jet travel. Lobbyists continue to bundle political contributions to lawmakers but are now making sure the totals do not trigger new public reporting rules. And with presidential nominating conventions coming next summer, lawmakers and lobbyists are working together to save another tradition endangered by the new rules: the convention party feting one lawmaker.

"You can't have a party honoring a specific member. It's clear to me -- but it's not clear to everybody," said Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate ethics committee. She said the committee is getting "these questions that surround the edges -- 'If it's midnight the night before,' 'If I wear one shoe and not the other.' "

Democrats touted the new ethics law as the most thorough housecleaning since Watergate, and needed after a host of scandals during 12 years of Republican rule. Prompted by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's wheeling and dealing and the jailing of three members of Congress on corruption charges in recent years, the law, signed by President Bush on Sept. 14, was heralded by congressional leaders as a real change in Washington's influence game.

But the changes have prompted anxiety about what perks are still permissible. In recent months, the House and Senate ethics committees have fielded more than 1,000 questions from lobbyists and congressional staffers seeking guidance -- or an outright waiver -- for rules banning weekend trips and pricey wedding gifts, five-course dinners and backstage passes.

Looking for ways to keep spreading freebies legally, hundreds of lobbyists have been attending seminars at Washington law firms to learn the ins and outs of the new law.

At a recent American League of Lobbyists briefing, Cleta Mitchell of the Foley & Lardner law firm said that while the law bans lobbyists from buying lawmakers or staffers a meal, it is silent on picking up bar tabs. A woman in the third row asked hopefully, "You can buy them as many drinks as you want, as often as you want?"

No, Mitchell said, not unless the drinkers are the lobbyist's personal friends, and she pays from her own pocket.

If that rule was clear to some, two charity dinners allowed hazier interpretations.


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