WASHINGTON — When Congress accepted new limits on gifts from lobbyists a few months ago, it sounded like the death knell of a Washington culture in which the powerful mingle freely--and free--with moneyed interests at posh resorts, tony restaurants and glitzy arena sky boxes.
But now, two months since the new rules took effect, lobbyists are finding there is still ample opportunity for special interests to cozy up to Congress in ways that only money can buy.
Top congressional tax-writing staff members recently traveled to London, Paris and Rome in the company of a handful of corporate officials. A trade organization for lobbyists still conducted its annual schmooze session with congressional staff members. Congress' ethics committees have put out the word that lobbyists can still pick up the tab for drinks with lawmakers, so long as they only eat hors d'oeuvres: Finger sandwiches, yes. Juicy hamburgers, no.
Some lobbyists scoff at the new rules, saying that the money they would have poured into lunches and entertainment simply will wind up in lawmakers' political campaign coffers. "They are going to feed it into political action committees," predicted Howard Marlowe, a lobbyist who is director of the American League of Lobbyists Educational Fund.
To be sure, the new rules have ended some of the more egregious forms of lifestyle-enhancing favors, such as golf and ski trips masquerading as fact-finding missions.
And there is enough teeth-gnashing around Washington to suggest that the rules have some real bite: The owner of La Colline, a pricey French restaurant on Capitol Hill, has complained that his business has dropped by one-third since the new rules took effect. A top Senate staff member who braves lunch with a lobbyist is reduced to ordering a small salad and a glass of water to stay within the new limits.
Came With Territory
For those who have been part of a political culture in which eating and traveling on other people's money was practically part of the job description, these are major adjustments. "There are people who haven't been paying for their own lunch for five, 10, 15 years," said Tom Korologos, a lobbyist at Timmons & Co. who is practically a fixture in the halls of the Senate.
"This really has been a sea change," said Sonia Fois, a former Senate aide who is now a lawyer at the firm of Arnold & Porter.
But the gift ban does not lay a glove on some of the more controversial links between private interests and public power: lobbyists helping to write legislation, former aides lobbying their former bosses and special-interest political action committees pouring money into lawmakers' campaigns.
Even some of the ban's most ardent proponents acknowledge that its impact will be limited as long as the campaign finance system gives a loud voice to private money.
"Until you clean up the campaign finance system, you're not going to break the link between lobbyists' money" and politics, said Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a public affairs lobbying group that backs both the gift ban and campaign finance reform.
Viewed as Absurd
With big political contributions still sloshing around the system, some lobbyists see absurdities in the gift ban. "You can give them $10,000, but you can't buy them a hamburger," Korologos grouses.
Under the new rules, House members and their staffs generally cannot accept gifts from anyone but family and friends. The Senate has limits that are more lax: Gifts under $50 are allowed, but they cannot total more than $100 from any one source in a year. There are many exceptions, but some things are prohibited with no ifs, ands or buts. No longer can lawmakers and staffers accept free entertainment, such as theater tickets, golf games or skiing passes.
The rules also throw cold water on the fancy one-on-one meals that for years have been standard lobbying fare. They are prohibited in the House and allowed in the Senate only if the tab fits under the $50 limit. The effect of that rule is written all over the ledgers of expensive restaurants around Capitol Hill, where maitres d' report a big drop-off in lobbying traffic.
"I'm hoping by the middle of March that things will smooth out and, hopefully, something will be found in a way to circumvent all of this," said Paul Zucconi, co-owner of La Colline.
Confusion in Rules
As simple as the rules seem at first glance, many lobbyists and aides are confused about exactly how they apply. The House Ethics Committee has issued a 13-page guide to the new do's and don'ts, and has distributed about 19,000 copies to lobbyists, lawmakers and their staff members.
The detailed advice is needed because the simple rule against gifts is riddled with exceptions.