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Distance Grows From K Street to the Capitol

Lobbyists are getting a cooler response from lawmakers waving the banner of ethics reform.

January 24, 2006|Richard Simon and Tom Hamburger | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Skyboxes are suddenly empty. Trips have been canceled. Members of Congress and their aides are insisting on paying for their own meals -- if they're willing to be seen in public with a lobbyist at all.

Even before new ethics rules have been put in place, the political corruption scandal sweeping down Washington's famed K Street corridor is disrupting life for those on both ends of the influence trade.

Jon Doggett, vice president of public policy for the National Corn Growers Assn., said he offered to take some Capitol Hill staff members to lunch last week, but was told they could not accept lunches from lobbyists anymore.

"I told one of them, 'I never bought your boss' vote with a $12 hamburger, did I?' "

Whatever the cost involved, cozy relationships between groups that want something and lawmakers who can give it have been a staple of life in the nation's capital since the republic's earliest days. Many analysts remain skeptical that such ties will fundamentally change. But at least for the time being, much of the traditional hobnobbing among lobbyists, politicians and their assistants has been put on hold.

"People are being cautious. No doubt about it," said Mark Gorman, senior vice president of government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

The examples abound.

The Information Technology Industry Council, which lobbies for high-technology companies, planned to take about a dozen lawmakers to Silicon Valley this week. But the trip has been called off.

"We see the handwriting on the wall," said Ralph Hellman, the council's senior vice president of government relations. He was referring to a congressional rush to ban privately funded travel for lawmakers and their staffs.

A lobbyist for banking and energy interests said he had decided to give up his season tickets for Washington Redskins' football games because he anticipated his usual guests -- lawmakers and their aides -- would no longer attend.

"Who ... am I going to take?" asked the lobbyist, who requested anonymity when discussing his business.

Upscale restaurants have noticed a decided decrease in business. "It's been a tough beginning of the year," said Denis Sirieyf, maitre d' at La Colline, a French restaurant located two blocks from Senate office buildings.

Sirieyf, whose restaurant specializes in dishes such as sauteed calf's liver with fricasseed apples, said he checked with half a dozen other restaurants near Capitol Hill to see if they were having the same experience.

"They were not busy at all ... I think [the lobbying scandal] will have a big impact."

Doggett, of the corn growers group, lamented lost opportunities to explain "a lot of stuff to a 25-year-old staffer with a political science degree whose [boss] is voting on issues that involve agriculture, and they've never been on a farm."

He said he saw no harm in discussing such business at meals he paid for, as long as it was disclosed.

But a House GOP leadership aide said lawmakers and their staffs were looking more warily at offers of gifts, trips and meals "because the people you thought you knew and trusted, who you think are good people, may not be." The aide asked not to be named when discussing the new attitude on Capitol Hill toward Washington's estimated 27,000 lobbyists.

The change comes three weeks after Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges stemming from his lobbying activities and agreed to cooperate in an ongoing influence-peddling investigation. The scandal has unnerved Republican congressional leaders, with whom Abramoff was closely linked, and lawmakers of both parties who received campaign funds from his clients.

The politicians have rushed to embrace ethics reform, calling for an end to trips by members of Congress or their staffs that are financed by private groups. Other proposals would ban or put strict limits on gifts from lobbyists, place the House floor and gym off-limits to lawmakers-turned-lobbyists and require greater disclosure of lobbyists' activities.

Government watchdog groups say that even if these recommendations become law, more would need to be done to prevent business as usual from recurring in Washington.

"Our concern is that this heightened sensitivity is short-lived," said Mary Boyle of Common Cause. "And I think it could be unless reforms include credible, strong enforcement of new rules and regulations."

Many skeptics note that for all the talk about change, political squabbling has kept the House Ethics Committee from functioning for a year.

Still, even before a single new ethics law has been passed, actions are being taken that aim to put greater distance between legislators and lobbyists.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada last week ordered his personal staff to refuse any gifts or meals from lobbyists. Previously, the office followed the current rules, which permit gifts and meals with values less than $50.

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