Death of the Gift Bag
IF YOU WERE to look at the lengthy list of glamorous convention parties in Denver this week and St. Paul next week, you might be forgiven for concluding that the new federal lobbying law didn't put much of a damper on special interests using the events as an opportunity for wining, dining and coddling politicians. Actually, you'd be wrong. Certainly, there is no shortage of over-the-top entertaining. But the new lobbying law has meant a decided change for the better in the nature of convention partying.
The legislation was supposed to put an end to the insidious practice of corporations and labor unions throwing lavish parties honoring lawmakers whose help they seek. And it has, mostly. The worst of the excesses are over: Think then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) lining up private rail cars to which his members could repair from the hubbub of the convention floor; or former senator John Breaux (D-La.) hosting a corporate-funded bash at the New England Aquarium in Boston complete with women dressed as mermaids.
It's easy both to criticize the remaining loopholes and to deride the legalistic hair-splitting that the new lobbying law demands. The biggest loophole was carved out of the law by the House Ethics Committee, which decided that events honoring a group of members -- for example, a particular caucus or state delegation, were allowable. Thankfully, the Senate chose not to go along with this permissive approach. As for the Talmudic disputes over what, precisely, counts as finger food (sliders, yes, burgers, no) or who counts as "name act" entertainment -- certainly, there is something silly about asking grown-up (and highly paid) lawyers to review catering menus. But the new rules have brought with them a new and welcome caution for those on both sides of the partying transaction. The era of big gift bags is over.