Outside editorial: Party on: New ethics law cracked down on lobbyists - or did it?

Posted: Tuesday, January 15, 2008

t's not yet clear, and it may not be for some time, exactly which candidates will be nominated by Republicans and Democrats at their conventions this summer. What is becoming clear, thanks to the enablers at the House ethics committee, is that the conventions will once again be a festival of lobbyist-underwritten partying.

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It wasn't supposed to be this way. The new ethics law prohibits lobbyists and the entities that employ them from hosting - read, paying for - convention parties to "honor" lawmakers. This is a phenomenally cushy perk, in which key members of Congress get to entertain and curry favor with their supporters, at the expense of the lobbyists who want to curry favor with them. Section 305 of the new law provides that during the convention, a member of Congress "may not participate in an event honoring that Member ... if such event is directly paid for by a registered lobbyist under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 or a private entity that retains or employs such a registered lobbyist." No parties, you might think?

Think again. The House ethics committee, in its wisdom, issued an interpretation of the new law last month that leaves little of it intact. First, the ethics panel found, the supposed "legislative history" of the law says it is intended to cover only parties honoring a "specific member." Thus, celebrations that honor more than one lawmaker aren't covered. We say "supposed" legislative history because the sole support that the ethics panel cites is a statement inserted in the Congressional Record by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., four days after the legislation was passed. If that's not flexible enough, the ethics panel helpfully noted that the prohibition applies only to parties taking place on the dates the convention is held - so celebrations in the days leading up to the big event wouldn't count. Moreover, the committee pointed out, the rule applies only to parties "directly paid for" by lobbyists: "The fact that a private organization received some of its funding for an event during a national convention from a lobbyist or private entity that retains lobbyists would not ... disqualify a member from participating in the organization's event." Hard to imagine a clearer road map for lobbyists interested in getting around the intent of the new law.

The Senate ethics committee has yet to issue its own interpretation of the provision; we hope that it takes an approach more in keeping with the spirit of the law. And we hope that the House panel will reassess. If members need a refresher course on the statute, they might take a look at the back-patting press release issued by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that congratulates the 110th Congress for ending "lavish convention parties," explaining that the new law "prohibits Members of Congress from attending national political convention parties held in their honor and paid for by lobbyists or their clients."

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