Lawmakers, lobbyists skirt spirit of new rule

February 11, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The 110th Congress opened with the passage of sweeping 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 didn't take long for lawmakers to find ways to keep having fun while lobbyists pick up the tab.

In the past two months, some lawmakers have disclosed that they've 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 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 Broadway shows like Mary Poppins (also $2,500 for two).

"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," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said. He added, "Hunting is a very popular attraction in South Carolina."

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

Instead of picking up the tab directly, lobbyists pay a political fundraising committee, and, in turn, the committee pays the lawmaker's way. The prices listed are for lobbyists with political action committees. And the lobbyists usually pay for their own travel and hotel rooms, too.

Lobbyists and fundraisers say such trips are becoming increasingly popular, partly as a quirky consequence of the new ethics rules, which are in effect in the House and could take effect in the Senate by spring. By barring lobbyists from mingling with a lawmaker or staff for the cost of a steak dinner, the restrictions have stirred new demand for pricier tickets to social fundraising events.

"Members of Congress are becoming more and more creative in finding ways to engage lobbyists to help pay for their campaigns," said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for tighter campaign finance rules.

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