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October 23, 2017

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Complexities of schmoozing

Teams of lawyers and boxes of toothpicks are the new tools of lobbyists’ trade



Here’s an interesting question causing much hand-wringing as the Republican and Democratic political conventions near: How much food can a lobbyist feed a member of Congress on the end of a toothpick and not violate new ethics rules that ban free meals?

Answer: A cheese quesadilla is OK, maybe. Add chicken or beef and you’re out of bounds.

What about sliders — those mini-hamburgers that go great with beer? Are they acceptable or must they be cut in half?

An army of attorneys is trying to answer those questions, one lobbyist said Wednesday.

It’s not a small issue. No fewer than 400 events (and counting) are being planned for next week when the Democrats are in Denver and, a week later, when the Republicans arrive in St. Paul, Minn.

Jennifer Lopez is expected to host one. The Black Eyed Peas will perform in Denver, Sammy Hagar in St. Paul. Conventiongoers can listen to jazz, see films and go to dozens of cocktail receptions thematically set to issues facing the country.

As the schedule shows, aside from televised speeches, political conventions these days are devoted less to the serious business of nominating candidates for president and more to giant forums for socializing and lobbying — and partying.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was asked recently what he would be doing at the convention, he deadpanned he would be getting drunk every day. It was a joke. The senator, a practicing Mormon, doesn’t drink.

But plenty of conventiongoers will enjoy four straight days of partying, and Americans may wonder who is picking up the tab.

Many events are being sponsored by corporations and advocacy groups — from military contractors to labor unions — that try to influence Congress on a host of issues.

This year’s conventions are the first, big off-the-Hill test of new ethics rules put in place when Democrats gained control of Congress after the 2006 election.

Democrats vowed to “drain the swamp” when they rose to power. Gone are the lavish sit-down dinners sponsored by special interests that filled the off-time during the 2004 convention.

In their place emerged the toothpick rule: Hosts can serve no more than finger food, essentially snacks that fit on a toothpick.

The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis reported on the dilemma party planners faced over the quesadilla question. A lawyer cautioned them to stick with cheese. The paper said the group finally opted for calamari.

Craig Holman, lobbyist for Public Citizen, a good-government group that has fought to tighten rules on lobbyists, says the distinction may sound silly but it’s important. Less schmoozing can occur over a cocktail wiener than a five-course meal.

Yet others say Washington still has a long way to go to detangle itself from the cozy relationship between lawmakers and those seeking their attention.

Nancy Watzman heads up the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time Project, which is tracking convention events. The group intercepted and posted online the 21-page list of convention parties compiled by a Washington lobby shop — 16 pages for the Democrats, five for the Republicans, perhaps a sign of which party is in better spirits. She will try to crash events to see just how exclusive they are.

Watzman says she’s not against letting lawmakers have a good time, “but it shouldn’t be with just these insiders.”

“I’m not invited to those receptions. You’re not invited to those receptions.”

Well, in fact, reporters are invited to some soirees, although hosts can seem nervous about allowing the press into these well-lubricated events. As one host said to a certain reporter this week: Please come, but the entire thing is off the record. Even the fact that we hold the event is off the record.

In other words, the event will never have happened.

Next question for the attorneys: Is it OK to feed members of Congress at events that never happen?

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