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Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/us/politics/11trips.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits Article Tools Sponsored By
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 11, 2007
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/us/politics/11trips.html?_r=1&th&emc=th&oref=slogin

      Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits

      Article Tools Sponsored By
      By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
      Published: February 11, 2007

      WASHINGTON, Feb. 10 — The 110th Congress opened with
      the passage of new rules intended to curb the
      influence of lobbyists by prohibiting them from
      treating lawmakers to meals, trips, stadium box seats
      or the discounted use of private jets.

      But it did not take long for lawmakers to find ways to
      keep having lobbyist-financed fun.

      In just the last two months, lawmakers invited
      lobbyists to help pay for a catalog of outings: lavish
      birthday parties in a lawmaker’s honor ($1,000 a
      lobbyist), martinis and margaritas at Washington
      restaurants (at least $1,000), a California
      wine-tasting tour (all donors welcome), hunting and
      fishing trips (typically $5,000), weekend golf
      tournaments ($2,500 and up), a Presidents’ Day weekend
      at Disney World ($5,000), parties in South Beach in
      Miami ($5,000), concerts by the Who or Bob Seger
      ($2,500 for two seats), and even Broadway shows like
      “Mary Poppins” and “The Drowsy Chaperone” (also $2,500
      for two).

      The lobbyists and their employers typically end up
      paying for the events, but within the new rules.

      Instead of picking up the lawmaker’s tab, lobbyists
      pay a political fund-raising committee set up by the
      lawmaker. In turn, the committee pays the legislator’s
      way.

      Lobbyists and fund-raisers say such trips are becoming
      increasingly popular, partly as a quirky consequence
      of the new ethics rules.

      By barring lobbyists from mingling with a lawmaker or
      his staff for the cost of a steak dinner, the
      restrictions have stirred new demand for pricier
      tickets to social fund-raising events.

      Lobbyists say that the rules might even increase the
      volume of contributions flowing to Congress from K
      Street, where many lobbying firms have their offices.

      Some lawmakers acknowledge that some fund-raising
      trips resemble the lobbyist-paid junkets that Congress
      voted to prohibit.

      Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic
      Congressional Campaign Committee, said its leaders had
      decided to stop holding fund-raising events for
      lobbyists with political action committees because of
      the seeming inconsistency.

      So the committee canceled its annual Colorado ski
      weekend for lobbyists and lawmakers to raise money for
      the next campaign. Gone, too, is its Maryland hunting
      trip with Representative John D. Dingell of Michigan,
      the avid hunter who is chairman of the House Energy
      and Commerce Committee.

      But other Congressional party campaign committees have
      not stopped their events, including the Democratic
      Senatorial Campaign Committee’s annual Nantucket
      weekend for donors who contribute $25,000. And
      individual lawmakers are still playing host to plenty
      of events themselves.

      Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican
      who sometimes invites lobbyists to join him for
      fund-raising hunting trips, called such events an
      innocuous fact of life.

      “If you are not going to have publicly financed
      elections and you are getting your support from
      private individuals — which I believe in — I don’t see
      any problem with having events where private
      individuals who give you money can talk to you,” said
      Mr. Graham, who like the other senators quoted in this
      article voted for the ethics reform. He added,
      “Hunting is a very popular attraction in South
      Carolina.”

      Representatives John R. Kuhl Jr. of New York and Greg
      Walden of Oregon, both Republicans, each recently
      invited lobbyists to a rock concert by Bob Seger and
      the Silver Bullet Band. And three Republican
      lawmakers, Mr. Walden and Representatives Darrell Issa
      and Mary Bono of California, have invited lobbyists to
      join them next month at a Who concert in Washington.

      “They’re her favorite rock ’n’ roll band,” said Frank
      Cullen, Ms. Bono’s chief of staff.

      Among Democrats, Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware
      recently returned from his annual ski trip to the
      Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch in Beaver Creek, Colo.
      Senator Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, just got back
      from a skiing and snowmobiling trip to his state and
      has planned two golfing and fly-fishing weekends as
      well. Expeditions of lobbyists attend each trip. The
      top prices for the events are meant for lobbyists with
      political action committees.

      Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign
      Legal Center, which advocates for tighter campaign
      finance rules, said that organizing a fund-raising
      trip was not the same as accepting a free vacation.
      But she added: “At the end of the day, it is the same
      thing.”

      Representative Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican
      famous on K Street for his annual fund-raising
      weekends in Beverly Hills and South Beach, has
      recently invited lobbyists to join him for some
      expensive cups of coffee. A $2,500 contribution from a
      lobbyist’s political action committee entitles the
      company’s lobbyist to join Mr. Cantor at a Starbucks
      near his Capitol Hill office four times this spring.

      “What’s next? Come help me pick up my dry cleaning?”
      said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for
      Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political
      fund-raising.

      The excursions would be illegal under the new ethics
      rules if lobbyists or their employers paid for them
      directly. (The rules, passed by both houses in early
      January, have already taken effect in the House and
      are expected to take effect in the Senate later this
      spring.) And some outings involving personal
      entertainment or recreation for lawmakers could also
      run afoul of legal restrictions on the personal use of
      campaign money if they were paid for by a lawmaker’s
      re-election campaign.

      But they are allowed, and increasingly common, because
      of a combination of loopholes. First, the ethics rules
      restrict personal gifts but not political
      contributions, so paying to attend a fund-raiser is
      still legitimate. Second, the “personal use”
      restrictions apply to lawmakers’ re-election campaigns
      but not to their personal political action committees,
      which can spend money on almost anything. Lawmakers
      use their personal PACs to sponsor most of the events.
      (Lawyers disagree about whether Congressional ethics
      rules restrict personal use of members’ PACs.)

      The lawmakers’ so-called leadership PACs began
      proliferating about two decades ago, initially as
      vehicles for senior members of Congress to build
      loyalty among their colleagues by funneling money to
      their campaigns.

      These days, however, even the newest members of
      Congress usually start them. Two newly elected
      Democratic senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and
      Jim Webb of Virginia, already have. And many use them
      mainly to pay for travel or miscellaneous other costs.

      Over the last two years, the roughly 300 PACs
      controlled by lawmakers raised a total of about $156
      million and used only about a third of that on federal
      campaign contributions, according to the Center for
      Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political
      fund-raising.

      Vacationlike fund-raising events with lobbyists are
      not new. Former Representative Tom DeLay’s trips to
      Puerto Rico were legendary on K Street, for example.
      But the new ethics rules barring lobbyists from
      treating lawmakers to less-expensive amusements have
      given new importance to such getaways.

      “I have to have some personal contacts to be a
      lobbyist,” said James Dyer, a lobbyist at the firm of
      Clark & Weinstock. “If the only ticket in terms of
      contact is these fund-raising events, it is going to
      be costly,” Mr. Dyer said. “The fund-raising part of
      our lives is a very expensive tool.”

      Thomas Susman, a lawyer who was an editor of the
      American Bar Association lobbying manual, said that at
      a recent presentation about the new rules to the
      lobbyists trade group, “the biggest question was, Is
      this going to drive everything to the fund-raising
      side? Is that going to be the way to have social
      contact with members?”

      Some members of Congress said it would not bother them
      if the upshot of the new rules turned out to be more
      contributions.

      “I am not going to hide from the fact that we have to
      raise money,” said Representative Devin Nunes, a
      California Republican who has invited donors to his
      political action committee on a wine-tasting tour in
      June, modeled after the movie “Sideways.” “Only a
      moron would sell a vote for a $2,000 contribution,”
      Mr. Nunes said.

      Fund-raising consultants for both parties said they
      saw a golden opportunity. “We are definitely seeing an
      increase in the number of events across the board,”
      said Dana Harris of Bellwether Consulting, a
      Republican firm that specializes in courting
      lobbyists’ political action committees. “Fund-raising
      events will provide a safe haven for lobbyists to talk
      to members.”

      Among the coming events Ms. Harris’s firm helped
      organize: a trip this month to the Yacht and Beach
      Club Resort at Disney World for Senator Mel Martinez
      of Florida, for a $5,000 PAC contribution, and a May
      trip to the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia
      for Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, for
      $2,500 a head.

      Some private jet companies are trying to capitalize on
      the rules as well. Lawmakers can no longer fly on a
      company’s corporate jet and then reimburse the owner
      at a discount. But lawmakers can still use their PACs
      to pay the actual cost for the use of jets, as Mr.
      Cantor and others have done.

      Marco Larsen, vice president for publicity at Blue
      Star Jets, a broker that sells single flights on
      private planes, said his company planned to hold an
      event in Washington to promote its services to members
      of Congress. Because of concerns about appearances,
      Mr. Larsen said, “We wanted to stay away right after
      the rules were passed, but I think it is a better time
      now.”

      Lawmakers are usually reluctant to talk about their
      fund-raising events. Asked in an interview in the
      Capitol why he was taking lobbyists on a Montana
      hunting trip, Mr. Baucus said only, “To show off the
      beauty of our state,” then retreated behind a guarded
      door.

      Mr. Martinez, who will be spending next weekend with
      lobbyists at Disney World, said, “I’ve heard from many
      other members that they have had very successful
      weekend events.” He added, “People can bring their
      families to it and bring their children, and it’s
      going to be fun.”
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