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Congress Waters Down Gift Ban, Allows Lobbyist Blowout Bashes

12:03 PM, Dec 21, 2007 • By BRIAN FAUGHNAN
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Roll Call reports that the House Ethics Committee has quietly issued a new interpretation of the house gift "ban" which allows lobbyists to throw lavish parties for Members of Congress at national party conventions:

The ethics committee's guidance last week said that while lobbyists or lobbying groups cannot host events that honor individual Members at convention parties, it's OK to throw events that honor a state delegation or caucus. In other words: Party on.

The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters and Public Citizen signed on to a letter Tuesday saying they believe it is "incumbent" for the committee "to immediately withdraw this guidance and to issue new guidance that properly reflects the meaning, purpose and spirit" of the new ethics legislation...

"Look, here's where we are now," [Wertheimer] said. "Lobbyists can't spend $25 to buy a Member of Congress a meal, but under this interpretation lobbying organizations can spend $100,000, or more, at the national conventions to pay for lavish parties."

Anyone who has attended a political convention knows the type of party being addressed here. Firms and lobbyists pay for expensive bashes to honor a member of Congress. The lobbyists and the member determine who's invited (sometimes thousands are). The lobbyists get the chance to do something for a member of Congress, and to rub elbows with others who attend the party (or parties).

USA Today
reported on a bevy of such events at the Democratic convention in 2004, honoring Harry Reid, Max Baucus, Steny Hoyer, Charlie Rangel, and many others. The problem with the new guidance by the Ethics Committee is that it will allow such parties to continue with little or no change. That's in direct conflict with the claim of Speaker Pelosi that Democrats have banned gifts and severed the ties between lobbyists and lawmakers.

The reform coalition identifies the problem with this interpretation in their letter here. Specifically:

  • The rule prohibits parties that honor a specific member, but allow tributes to a delegation or caucus. Thus, a party in honor of John Dingell is prohibited, but a party honoring members of the Energy and Commerce Committee is A-OK. The same is true of a party for the House Blue Dogs or Hispanic Caucus.
  • The new ethics guidance allows lobbyists to circumvent even this mild restriction by setting up a shell entity that they fund, strictly for the purpose of throwing an otherwise prohibited tribute bash.
  • A Member of the House can be listed as a host of the party, as long as there is at least on other host who is not a Member of Congress. So lobbyists can pay for a party hosted by Chairman Conyers (for example), as long one other person (probably the lobbyist who donates the most) is listed as a host as well.
  • The House Ethics Committee -- which has advised members that the gift ban is written 'broadly' adopted a narrow interpretation that differs from the one adopted by both the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives.

The cumulative effect is that there's essentially no restriction of lobbyist-funded parties at the Democratic and Republican conventions.

Is this how Congress drains the swamp?