Honor Bound?

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Congress is a very special place. Not only does it write the laws, it also instructs people about how to get around them.

Take the much-praised provision in last year's lobbying law that prohibits lawmakers from participating in events at the national presidential conventions that "honor" members of Congress.

The idea was to end the lobbyist-financed bacchanals of years past that paid tribute to Washington's most powerful lawmakers. No longer would wealthy interests be able to cozy up to the members whose support they crave by throwing extravagant parties for them.

At least that was the intention.

In fact, the House ethics committee, officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, proclaimed in December that no one should take the law too seriously. In a public memo, the panel wrote that lawmakers could still be venerated at a public bash as long as they are not singled out, but rather are part of a delegation or caucus of some sort.

Parties that honored a specific lawmaker were banned, but parties that honored groups of lawmakers were just fine.

Editorial pages across the country could barely contain their outrage.

But last week, the Senate's ethics panel, formally known as the Select Committee on Ethics, weighed in and gave government gadflies a reason to cheer. The Senate committee rejected the House's suggestion that broad groupings of lawmakers could be feted under the new restrictions. It concluded that neither individual lawmakers nor congressional delegations could be celebrated under the law.

There are still loopholes, of course. For example, events in honor of a state's officials or its delegation to either convention are deemed to be no problem. But at least the Senate mandated some tightening of the rules compared with the House.

Score one small victory for reformers.

At least that was the initial thinking.

On closer reading, however, the Senate panel's decision includes another exception large enough to explode the entire statute.

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