Ken Gross, a lawyer with Skadden who advises lobbyists and their clients on how to throw ethically acceptable parties, was recently puzzling over a difficult problem. One of the fabulous election-year pleasures for big corporations is sponsoring sumptuous breakfasts for members of Congress and other politicos at the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions. But, recently, Congress cracked down on the wild salmon benedict and toasted pecan waffles. A new gift ban--passed as part of the Democratic majority's promise to bring ethics reform to Washington--prohibits companies that employ lobbyists from giving Hill employees free meals. Is corporate America's favorite breakfast tradition doomed?
Fortunately, Gross thought of some ways to save the day by parsing the term "meal" using the nutritional pyramid. Bread, which is really a snack and not a meal, is ethical to serve a congressman. Protein--because of its suggestion of "main course"--is problematic. "It's going to have to be rolls and doughnuts," Gross mused. "You can't serve eggs. ... Once you put tuna fish on the bagel, it becomes a sandwich."
Gross is just one of a number of ethics lawyers, lobbyists, members, and staffers who have been busily figuring out ways to circumvent the new rules. One might think that, if a legislative majority passes a law, that means a majority of legislators want to try to take it seriously. But, among those who work in the Capitol, the cause of ethics reform tends to be a faithless religion. Getting around the new ban is tough, though, because it is the most stringent ever imposed. The last gift ban happened in 1995, when, chastened by Ross Perot's anti-lobbyist harangues, the Republican Congress put a $50 limit on lobbyist-sponsored meals and gifts. But Washington culture quickly adjusted itself to the hardship. Club-level seats at Wizards games normally valued at around $100 started appearing for the gift-ban-friendly price of $49.50. A Virginia golf course offered a special package with a round of golf, a hot dog, and a Coke for just under $50. There were even semantic attempts to get out of the ban: The president of the Republican Club's restaurant, which saw its business drop in 1995, tried to get the ethics committee to exempt it with this exquisitely Talmudic piece of logic: "We're not a restaurant, we're an extension of the political party." For those who didn't want to bother with the rules at all, there was one enormous loophole-- no enforcement.
But this time is different. Democrats have decreed that all meals, regardless of their price, are verboten. They've also reduced the allowed amount for gifts to $10, forcing corporations to proffer presents about as glamorous as those at an office Secret Santa party. Even more oppressive, there are now strict penalties for fooling with the rules. The Justice Department will have to report how many ethics busts it's investigating, allowing scandalhungry reporters to publicize the cases, and the General Accountability Office has been given the authority to audit lobbying firms for disclosure violations. Breaking the rules can now get you thrown in jail. This zero tolerance policy is fostering an atmosphere of intense paranoia. Ed Kutler, a lobbyist for Clark & Weinstock, describes a recent visit to a cafe where he tried to pick up the tab on a staffer buddy's coffee. "What is that? What did you do that for?" the staffer hissed, recoiling from the cup.
Against this backdrop of fear, ethics advisers like Gross have become the Capitol's new priesthood, guiding legislators and lobbyists around the various venal traps they come across in their day-to-day activities and helping them petition the House and Senate Ethics Committees for indulgences. "My business is way up," says Cleta Mitchell, a GOP ethics lawyer for Foley & Lardner. Gross, in fact, had already been consulted on the coffee issue and had decided it fell on the right side of virtue because, so long as it wasn't gussied up with too much whipped cream, it was not a meal. "I asked our lawyer, Ken Gross," Kutler was able to reassure the staffer. "He said I could buy you a cup of coffee!"
To hear people around Washington tell it, the gift ban aims most cruelly not only at friends just trying to promote a little public-private peace and understanding--like Ed Kutler and his coffee date--but at the children, the lovers, the dying, and the destitute. For years, the Motion Picture Association of America (mpaa) has hosted free children's movie previews for staffers' families, along with all the hot dogs the kids could want. But hot dogs, consisting of both bread and protein, are a meal, so now the mpaa will only allow waiters to pass hors d'oeuvres. One lobbyist describes the attendant chaos. "You have these starving children running around," she says, "and there are these clusters of kids around the areas where the waiters come out, tugging at pants legs."
Affairs of the heart are also subject to the ban. In training seminars, lawyers have been instructing amorous staffers that it's OK to accept a diamond engagement ring from a lobbyist "as long as you say 'yes' before you accept the ring," reports a Democratic House aide. Indeed, the gift ban can find a man even at the hour of his death. Earlier this year, the American Heart Association wanted to sponsor a free CPR training course to help House staffers handle cardiac emergencies on the job, but the House ethics committee ruled that the boxed lunch the cardiovascular health group planned to offer--a sandwich, apple, and cookie-- as well as the $29.95 training kits constituted improper gifts.
These stories are nothing compared to what people fear could happen. Some of the city's inhabitants worry that the gift ban will basically ruin the Hill's social scene--especially for economically disadvantaged public servants. One of the hottest tickets in town has already been canceled--the New York delegation's corporatesponsored dance party at the Congressional Black Caucus's annual legislative conference. "Some of [our members] come to Congress very poor, and this imposes a hardship on them," says Elsa Scott, the president of the CBC Foundation. "The members are living on $125,000 [a year], and they can't even go out to eat," wails one lobbyist. "They can't even go to dinner anymore in this fucking town!"
But, before you start feeling too sorry for our elected officials, remember that there are still exceptions. One allows for pre-existing friends to buy each other dinner--a big loophole considering that lobbying is all about hitting up pre-existing friends. Another popular one exempts lavish dinners that are "widely attended," meaning at least 25 non-Hill employees from a diversified set of companies have to come. Of course, these "non-Hill employees" can be lobbyists, diversity can mean three or four firms, and Washington party planners have been reassured not to sweat it if not all 25 rsvps show. "If somebody gets run over by a bus on the way there, that's not a problem," explains Gross.
One particular exception is the most crucial. While the forces of evil may no longer be able to buy a congressman a $10 bucket of chicken, they can still give him a $1,000 bucket of cash. Fund- raising events are exempt from the gift rules, and lobbyists report that new styles of "intimate" lobbyist-and-member fund-raisers are cropping up at the fanciest restaurants--ethical, so long as everybody brings a check.
Charlie Palmer Steak, the restaurant on the ground floor of Washington's influence-peddling temple at 101 Constitution Avenue, is the kind of expense- account place lobbying reform was supposed to empty. On a recent Friday lunch hour, though, it was packed; men in jewel-colored silk shirts and ladies with anchorwomancaliber sculpted hairdos clustered near the indoor pond, waiting for tables. "Has business been affected [by the lobbying reforms]?" I asked the diminutive maitre d'.
"No, I haven't seen much change," he said, surveying the room.
"You know, because it can even affect friends going out with each other," I pressed.
The maitre d' just laughed. "I don't think we get many friends entertaining friends in here."
By Eve Fairbanks