Sunday, February 11, 2007

Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits

The New York Times
Congress Finds Ways to Avoid Lobbyist Limits

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.”