Seeing the Ethics Rules, and Raising an Exception

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Shhhh! Don't tell anyone, but lobby groups are plotting all sorts of ways to get around the new ethics rules.

Lobbyists and their lawyers don't want to talk publicly about these "workarounds," a.k.a. clever cheating. But privately I've collected a few of the likely ways that lobbyists will continue to stay close to lawmakers while not outright breaking the law.

Most of these are still in the planning stages, so consider this an early heads-up.

The new statute bars lobbyists from taking lawmakers on trips. But lobby groups, particularly corporate lobbyists, are checking to see whether they can partner with colleges and nonprofit foundations to provide free travel to lawmakers despite the ban. The rules allow universities and charities greater latitude in providing the benefit.

Along the same lines, lobbyists, who are banned from organizing travel for lawmakers, are thinking about asking their assistants to do it -- an action that would skirt the prohibition.

The new law generally limits "fact-finding" trips by organizations with lobbyists to a single day. That would seem to make it hard for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobby for the nuclear industry, to sponsor its oft-taken trips to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada.

Not so. Those trips can still go on, the association says. Although the organization is still double-checking with ethics lawyers in Congress, it is confident that lawmakers and staffers can "travel on Monday, do their tour on Tuesday and travel back on Wednesday," a spokesman said. In other words, not much change.

In order to continue providing meals for lawmakers and their staff members, a few lobbyists are considering inviting their government guests to a happy hour, ordering drinks and chips, and calling the event a reception -- the kind of widely attended party that the rules still allow.

Small fundraisers might also proliferate as a way for lobbyists to provide dinners to lawmakers. A few lobbyists could invite a congressman to a restaurant, hand him checks for his reelection and then pay for the meal. The tab would be permitted as an in-kind contribution to the reelection effort.

Then there's the perfect storm of workarounds: the out-of-town fundraiser. A corporate political action committee could underwrite a lawmaker's travel to a lovely spot as long as a fundraising event is held there. That sort of thing already happens, of course, but it will probably occur a lot more, because campaign-related events are covered by a separate set of laws than those that deal with lobbying.

Happy trails!

A High-Flying Fly-In

Life is a gamble, of course, and this week so is lobbying. Literally.

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