Ethics Committee Ruling Changes Little

Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:39pm

Congressional watchdog groups rejoiced this week when the Senate Ethics Committee issued a ruling barring Senators from attending certain lobbyist-funded bashes at the national party conventions.

The groups said Monday’s decision set a standard the House ethics committee ignored with guidance they said “poked loopholes” in new Congressional ethics rules.

But event organizers and their ethics lawyers said the two sets of standards aren’t so far apart after all and won’t have much of an impact on their summer plans.

“I don’t see this is going to pose a huge disruption in the way Members were planning on participating in these events,” said Stefan Passantino, an ethics law expert at McKenna Long & Aldridge.

Added Darrell Henry, with GOP Convention Strategies: “They don’t change the playing field. They allow corporations and associations who want to be a part of the process to be involved.”

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct said that while lawmakers could not be honored individually at convention parties, a prohibition imposed by last year’s lobbying reform bill, it cleared them to be honored in groups — as members of state delegations, caucuses, or committees — as long as no individual lawmakers were named or given a speaking role at the event.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, called that “bogus guidance” that was “made to allow Members to try to avoid the rules.” Last week, his group sent a letter to all House lawmakers asking them to refuse to participate in convention parties funded by lobbying groups that honor groups of lawmakers.

He and other reform advocates said the Senate Ethics Committee succeeded in tightening that rule by barring Senators from attending events that include only lawmakers among their honorees.

Instead, the panel said, Senators can only attend if the honorees represent a broader group. That is, a party for the Nevada Congressional delegation would be off-limits, while one for “Nevada Republican Officials” or “Nevada Delegates” would be OK.

But the Senate added an exemption that effectively makes the differences between the chamber’s approaches a wash, said Marc Elias, an ethics lawyer with Perkins Coie: Unlike their House colleagues, Senators can attend lobbyist-sponsored functions as featured speakers.

“They differ less than would first meet the eye,” Elias said. Both committees are “trying to balance the requirements of the new law against the practicality of the events that go on at the convention.”

Nevertheless, reform advocates said the Senate panel’s decision had given them the go-ahead to press for tighter rules on the other side of the Hill. They are planning to ask Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to request that the ethics committee review its guidance. At press time, Pelosi’s office had not responded to a request for comment.

“This is a big deal,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said of the Senate decision. “We never sought to end parties at the national conventions. That was never the goal. The goal was to prevent lobbyists and lobbying organizations from putting on lavish parties that focus on honoring Members of Congress.”

If Democratic leaders decline to press for stricter ethics guidance, Holman said he will pursue it through a rules change.

At least one potential party host said the Senate ruling has scrambled event planning. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a Denver-based law and lobbying firm, was eyeing a bash to honor the Colorado Congressional delegation at the Democratic convention there in August.

“But now that the Senate rules have changed, we have to sit down and think it all through,” said Michael Levy, a policy director in the firm’s Washington, D.C.. office.

Likewise, telecom giant AT&T, traditionally a big sponsor of convention entertainment, is still “reviewing the guidelines and [has] made no plans yet.”

But others said that by steering widely away from anything that could constitute a problem, they already have ensured their events will be kosher. The Minnesota Agri-Growth Council is planning a celebration for the GOP convention in Minneapolis that hopes to attract an array of attendees, including lawmakers, but also state officials, press and industry representatives. “We’re not honoring anybody, nor are public officials appearing on the invitation as hosts,” said Daryn McBeth, the group’s executive director.

One convention insider said that on top of the thicket of ethics rules, the lack of presumptive nominees and relatively remote locations for both party confabs are conspiring to depress interest by potential sponsors.

“There’s not a lot of interest in doing anything, because no one wants to be the test case for what you can and can’t do,” this source said, predicting that many events will simply turn into traditional fundraisers.

“There will be events,” the insider said. “You’ll just have to pay for them.”