In today’s edition, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune reports that the annual Washington Mardi Gras party kicks off tonight at the Washington Hilton, a weekend-long event billed as "one of the most sought-after tickets in any season in Washington." The event’s parties, the paper says, "are arguably the most intimate gatherings of businesspeople, politicians and lobbyists left in Washington" after new congressional ethics rules were adopted. Writing that the parties are"a throwback to the days when politicians and lobbyists socialized regularly outside the glare of the public spotlight," the paper added that they are "largely immune to the new ethics standards."
A secretive, Louisiana-based group headed by a lobbyist and former aide to now lobbyist and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) organizes the event. The organization declined to name this year’s corporate sponsors, but in years past they included R.J. Reynolds, BellSouth, and Lockheed Martin, according to the paper.
This weekend’s parties at the Hilton is clear evidence that despite passing new ethics rules last year, Congress has much work to do to realize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) claim that the link between lobbyist and legislatures has been broken. In its story, The Times-Picayune interviewed Sunlight grantee Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, as asking, "What better occasion than Mardi Gras to demonstrate that the new rules are a farce?" Indeed.
What specifically is at issue here is the section of the new law regarding banning gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress and their staff. Most gifts are banned, but loopholes exist. This weekend’s Mardi Gras parties are considered "widely attended" functions, one of the loopholes allowing lobbyists to purchase tickets and give them as gifts to members and their staff. Also, the numerous receptions held in conjunction with the parties "are allowed under a separate exception because they aren’t sit-down meals: Only hors d’oeuvres are served," the paper writes. Last week, McClatchy Newspapers highlighted this "toothpick rule," where all is fine as long as members of Congress and their staff are not provided with silverware and a table and chair.
Earlier this week, The Hill newspaper spotlighted another problem with the gift ban. The House and Senate interpreted one aspect of the rules differently. It has been a long tradition for lobbyists to buy tickets to ritzy charity events, requesting that the some of the tickets be given to certain members of Congress and/or their staff. These charity events are popular with lawmakers, The Hill writes, by allowing them to socialize and interact with "Hollywood stars, business titans, sports figures and other noted celebrities." Obviously, anyone concerned about good government would have a problem with lobbyists doling out such prized perks to members of Congress and their staff. The Senate has ruled that these gifts are outlawed by the gift ban. The House has decided to allow the practice to continue for its members.
Craig Holman at Public Citizen’s Watchdog Blog wrote how he was not surprised by the decision by the House ethics committee in light of another very recent decision. In December, the committee ruled that lobbyists can throw lavish parties for lawmakers at the national conventions if two or more lawmakers are honored at the party. "It is becoming clear that we have a rogue House ethics committee that has not changed much since Tom DeLay," he writes.
And another beef we have at the Sunlight Foundation is that it’s past time for Congress to set up systems allowing lobbyists to file electronically all reporting requirements. The Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 1995 required this over a decade ago, but the House and Senate have failed to follow through. We agree with at Public Citizen when they called on Congress to require quarterly reports be filed electronically and establish a searchable, sortable and downloadable Web-based database that includes separate electronic fields for each record required to be disclosed, especially bill numbers and issue areas lobbied. In fact, we’d go further. It would be nothing for lobbyists to press the "send button" on their BlackBerrys and post their daily calendars on line.