Convention Rules to Live By
Sunday, May 25, 2008
Memorial Day is the traditional start of summer, and in an election year such as this, the national party conventions will mark the end. But the Democratic convention in Denver and the Republican one in Minneapolis-St. Paul won't be like the old days for members of Congress, who must now live under a tightened regimen of ethics rules. Fortunately, while the House and Senate ethics committees aren't always vigilant about investigating real corruption, they have been cranking out memos (including a new one last week) on what lawmakers can and can't eat, drink and do during the conventions. Here's a cheat sheet:
DO: Attend a party in honor of your state's delegates.
DON'T: Attend a party in your honor.
Let's say you're Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D). Lots of lobbyists want to "pay tribute" to your wise and heroic leadership. You can't attend an event "honoring Harry Reid." But you can attend an event honoring, say, "Nevada convention delegates," of which you are one. Got it?
DO: Snag pigs in a blanket and bacon-wrapped-somethings from a tray at a party.
DON'T: Sit down to eat a meal on a plate with a fork and knife.
Hill members and their staffs are already familiar with these sometimes confusing culinary rules. As the House ethics memo points out, you may attend "receptions at which the food served is limited to hors d'oeuvres, beverages and similar food of a nominal value." Sit-down dinners are verboten. Yes, it can be hard sometimes to stand with a drink in one hand and a plate of food in the other, and consume it all without spilling on yourself, especially if a dipping sauce is involved. But you just can't sit down and eat your meal with silverware. That would corrupt the democratic process.
DO: Attend a Colorado Rockies game in a skybox paid for by the city of Denver.
DON'T: Attend a game in a skybox paid for by a lobbyist.
The Rockies are bad this year, so you might want to avoid this scenario altogether. But if you must head to Coors Field, you can take tickets -- or pretty much any other gift -- as long as it's paid for by "any unit of state, local or federal government." The key is that the government really has to pay for the tickets and can't just serve as a conduit from some other donor. And, yes, you can sit down to eat your hot dog at the ballgame.
DO: Accept $49 worth of fried Twinkies at a Minnesota fair.
DON'T: Accept $51 worth (or die of a heart attack).