Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits
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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 lawmakers 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
The lobbyists and their employers typically end up
paying for the events, but within the new rules.
Instead of picking up the lawmakers tab, lobbyists
pay a political fund-raising committee set up by the
lawmaker. In turn, the committee pays the legislators
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 Committees 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 dont 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
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.
Theyre her favorite rock n roll band, said Frank
Cullen, Ms. Bonos 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
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
lobbyists political action committee entitles the
companys lobbyist to join Mr. Cantor at a Starbucks
near his Capitol Hill office four times this spring.
Whats next? Come help me pick up my dry cleaning?
said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for
Responsive Politics, a group that tracks political
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 lawmakers
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
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
Vacationlike fund-raising events with lobbyists are
not new. Former Representative Tom DeLays 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
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
Among the coming events Ms. Harriss 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
companys 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
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
Mr. Martinez, who will be spending next weekend with
lobbyists at Disney World, said, Ive 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 its
going to be fun.