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.

The committee ruled that a member of Congress can be a "featured speaker" at a national convention party and not run afoul of the lobbying law. That means that a senator is barred from participating in an event thrown in his honor, but he is free to attend a party that bills him as a featured speaker.

The distinction is virtually nonexistent. The invitation could not read: "Come to a party in honor of Sen. X." But it could read, "Come to a party at which Sen. X is the featured speaker."

The words are slightly different, but their meaning is essentially the same.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 assures me that most lawmakers do not want any trouble at the national confabs this summer and will not play the kind of semantic games I'm suggesting, especially with the ethics panels looking over their shoulders.

He may be right. But do not be surprised to see lawmakers attending lobbyist-sponsored parties that were not supposed to happen.

And if they do, they will have -- go figure -- Congress itself to thank.

Google Plays Hardball

Microsoft's more than $40 billion offer to buy Yahoo might have to grow to $50 billion for it to come to fruition. But Google is fighting hard behind the scenes to make sure the transaction does not occur at any price.

Microsoft wants to acquire Yahoo to better compete with Google for Internet search and online advertising dollars. Google does not want the competition.

So last Friday, a lobbyist for Google telephoned Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, and encouraged him to keep blogging and agitating against a Microsoft-Yahoo merger. Lobbyists for Google also have fanned out on Capitol Hill to highlight its disagreements with the Microsoft bid.

Chester said his group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups plan to complain to Congress and federal agencies that the combination would pose a risk to individuals' privacy rights. After a merger, the companies would have a vast storehouse of information that they could use without an individual's consent, he said.

But he is also worried about Google's attempt to use him to quietly manipulate the process. "I am troubled that Google is working its contacts to stir up trouble," he said in an e-mail. "It suggests to me they are pressing ahead to roil any deal by using their political connections. The public deserves to have its politics in the open."

A spokesman for Google declined to comment.

Raising Money in Style

Worried about the snow and cold? Senate Democrats have an antidote: an exclusive visit to Florida.

For a mere $15,000 (or $28,500 per couple), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is offering dinner and a show by singer Peter Cetera at Donald Trump's Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago.

If you're interested, though, you should make your reservations now. Neither the flights nor the overnight stays at tony hotels are included in the price of the Feb. 22 event, and space, the invitation says, is limited. I bet.

Hire of the Week

The Breaux-Lott Leadership Group is new, but it's already luring some big clients.

Sources in the airline industry say Delta Air Lines has hired the firm, which is headed by former senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Delta and Northwest Airlines are said to be in serious merger talks and, if they come to terms, they will have to battle mightily for government approval of their combination.

Continental and United also are considering a merger, analysts say, and lobbyists are lining up to help them, too.

Bret Boyles of Breaux-Lott would acknowledge only that the firm will be involved in aviation lobbying.

It might be involved with a lot more than that. The rumor mill is buzzing that Breaux-Lott is close to an alliance of some kind with Washington's largest lobbying law firm, Patton Boggs, where Breaux used to hang his hat. Neither Boyles nor Patton Boggs would comment.

Please send e-mail tokstreet@washpost.com.

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