When Congress accepted new limits on gifts from lobbyists a few months ago, it sounded like the death knell of a Washington culture in which the powerful mingle freely--and free--with moneyed interests at posh resorts, tony restaurants and glitzy arena sky boxes.
But now, two months since the new rules took effect, lobbyists are finding there is still ample opportunity for special interests to cozy up to Congress in ways that only money can buy.
Top congressional tax-writing staff members recently traveled to London, Paris and Rome in the company of a handful of corporate officials. A trade organization for lobbyists still conducted its annual schmooze session with congressional staff members. Congress' ethics committees have put out the word that lobbyists can still pick up the tab for drinks with lawmakers, so long as they only eat hors d'oeuvres: Finger sandwiches, yes. Juicy hamburgers, no.
Some lobbyists scoff at the new rules, saying that the money they would have poured into lunches and entertainment simply will wind up in lawmakers' political campaign coffers. "They are going to feed it into political action committees," predicted Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist who is director of the American League of Lobbyists Educational Fund.
To be sure, the new rules have ended some of the more egregious forms of lifestyle-enhancing favors, such as golf and ski trips masquerading as fact-finding missions.
And there is enough teeth-gnashing around Washington to suggest that the rules have some real bite: The owner of La Colline, a pricey French restaurant on Capitol Hill, has complained that his business has dropped by one-third since the new rules took effect. A top Senate staff member who braves lunch with a lobbyist is reduced to ordering a small salad and a glass of water to stay within the new limits.
Came With Territory
For those who have been part of a political culture in which eating and traveling on other people's money was practically part of the job description, these are major adjustments. "There are people who haven't been paying for their own lunch for five, 10, 15 years," said Tom Korologos, a lobbyist at Timmons & Co. who is practically a fixture in the halls of the Senate.
"This really has been a sea change," said Sonia Fois, a former Senate aide who is now a lawyer at the firm of Arnold & Porter.
But the gift ban does not lay a glove on some of the more controversial links between private interests and public power: lobbyists helping to write legislation, former aides lobbying their former bosses and special-interest political action committees pouring money into lawmakers' campaigns.
Even some of the ban's most ardent proponents acknowledge that its impact will be limited as long as the campaign finance system gives a loud voice to private money.
"Until you clean up the campaign finance system, you're not going to break the link between lobbyists' money" and politics, said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a public affairs lobbying group that backs both the gift ban and campaign finance reform.
Viewed as Absurd
With big political contributions still sloshing around the system, some lobbyists see absurdities in the gift ban. "You can give them $10,000, but you can't buy them a hamburger," Korologos grouses.
Under the new rules, House members and their staffs generally cannot accept gifts from anyone but family and friends. The Senate has limits that are more lax: Gifts under $50 are allowed, but they cannot total more than $100 from any one source in a year. There are many exceptions, but some things are prohibited with no ifs, ands or buts. No longer can lawmakers and staffers accept free entertainment, such as theater tickets, golf games or skiing passes.
The rules also throw cold water on the fancy one-on-one meals that for years have been standard lobbying fare. They are prohibited in the House and allowed in the Senate only if the tab fits under the $50 limit. The effect of that rule is written all over the ledgers of expensive restaurants around Capitol Hill, where maitres d' report a big drop-off in lobbying traffic.
"I'm hoping by the middle of March that things will smooth out and, hopefully, something will be found in a way to circumvent all of this," said Paul Zucconi, co-owner of La Colline.
Confusion in Rules
As simple as the rules seem at first glance, many lobbyists and aides are confused about exactly how they apply. The House Ethics Committee has issued a 13-page guide to the new do's and don'ts, and has distributed about 19,000 copies to lobbyists, lawmakers and their staff members.
The detailed advice is needed because the simple rule against gifts is riddled with exceptions.
For one, lawmakers and their aides can still travel--with food, lodging and transportation paid by someone else--so long as it is connected to "official duties." Defenders of congressional trips said the excursions give members valuable exposure to issues, people and places outside the Washington Beltway. Critics said they often are poorly disguised excuses to travel south in the winter.
The new gift rules require members and staff to report expense-paid travel sooner and more frequently than in the past. But that did not deter lawmakers and staff members from traveling to such far-flung places as Hawaii, Israel and Florida in January.
"We're still going to have people invited to sunny locations," Marlowe said. "They may not be as lavish and unfettered as before, but they are still going to be invited and they will still go."
The congressional ethics committees also approved the tax-staff trip to Europe, which was sponsored by the Tax Foundation. The nonprofit group paid the way for 10 congressional staff members to London, Paris and Rome for seminars on international tax law. Also attending were 14 officials from such corporations as General Motors, Citicorp and Nestle in a trip that foundation officials said was an all-business educational trip on an arcane subject.
"We went to these places because these are where some of the best experts are," said J. D. Foster, executive director of the foundation.
But McBride of Common Cause sees the trip as a boondoggle that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the new gift rules.
The new rules also open a gaping, if well-intentioned, loophole that allows lawmakers and their staff members to continue accepting gifts from friends and family. The problem is that some of the most-valued lobbyists in town are the ones who are longtime buddies with the people they are trying to influence. Former staff members and lawmakers routinely go into the lobbying business and later return to lobby former colleagues and bosses.
"If you've been here for 20 years, a lot of your friends have turned out to be lobbyists," moaned one House Republican aide.
This exception has put the ethics committees in the unaccustomed position of defining friendship and judging motives for gift-giving. They likely will frown on a gift, for example, if a "friend" takes a business tax deduction for it.
Another loophole allows lawmakers to accept free meals if they are offered in conjunction with a "widely attended event," generally defined as something involving 25 people or more. That's how hundreds of members of Congress managed to attend a black-tie dinner hosted by the National Press Club Foundation. Then there is the exception for food of "nominal value." Marlowe consulted congressional ethics experts in planning a lunchtime conference of lobbyists and congressional staff and was told that he could serve hors d'oeuvres but not sandwiches because that would look too much like a meal.
Another big exception to the no-meals rule: Lawmakers can still accept freebies in connection with political events. That's why many lobbyists predicted that one effect of the gift ban may be to channel more money into political fund-raisers and contributions. La Colline may try to make up for its flagging lunch business by exploiting that loophole.
"I'm planning to increase the number of private-function rooms we have because fund-raising events are listed as an exception," Zucconi said.
Curbs Seen Succeeding
Some advocates of the gift restrictions said any egregious efforts by lobbyists to get around the rules may fail because members of Congress and their staffs will not participate in an obvious ruse. "I don't think those things are going to work," said an aide to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a leading proponent of the gift ban. "Members aren't going to do it."
Indeed, some special interests may decide that it is not worth the trouble to track the "ABCs of the exceptions" and simply establish a "no-gifts" policy, predicted Fois, the former Senate aide.
But others said the exceptions to the gift ban, once understood, will be exploited as thoroughly as loopholes in the tax code.
"As soon as people understand what the precise rules are, people will go and do whatever is allowed," said Wright H. Andrews, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "This is a highly competitive town and business. People are constantly striving to get their messages across."