The new ethics environment may have marked the end of the affair between Capitol Hill decision-makers and their lobbyist suitors. But they’ll always have Paris.
The Congressional delegation that jetted across the ocean in late June for the biennial Paris Air Show took in a whirlwind of information about the aerospace industry during daytime visits to exhibits at Le Bourget airfield. And in the evenings, they were treated to some of the finest the city has to offer, courtesy of major defense contractors.
The wining and dining that took place during the four-night trip apparently all falls within the bounds of Congressional ethics rules. That’s because despite a new ban on gifts and free meals from companies with business before the government — a regulation in force in the House and pending in the Senate — the rules carve out an exemption for widely attended events.
Sponsors of the lavish receptions in Paris said they secured advance clearance for their events from the Congressional ethics panels. Nevertheless, lobbyists and staff in attendance said a new sensitivity to staying within the lines prompted caution about just how fully Hill types should indulge.
The result, by most accounts, had its odder moments. At an afternoon reception at the Ritz Paris Hotel — titled “Tea at the Ritz” — staffers accepted free drinks at a downstairs bar. But when officials from Raytheon, the defense contractor that underwrote the event, broke out humidors and started handing out cigars, the staffers abstained, according to sources in attendance.
“No one from the company was trying to do anything wrong, but staffers were hypersensitive,” said one lobbyist there.
In contrast to past years, staffers hitting the town after hours were careful to pick up their own tabs. They shunned giveaways and goodie bags at receptions. And some contractors, anticipating uneasiness, scaled back their hospitality. Thanks to the exception in the rules, however, there was still plenty of luxury to go around after the day’s work was done.
On Sunday afternoon, June 17, Honeywell International sponsored a reception at Le Pre Catalan, which, with three Michelin stars, is considered one of the top restaurants in France. “To restore the spirit, there are few things better than lunch or dinner at this grand restaurant,” The Economist magazine says of the spot. A handful of Senators and staff joined hundreds of industry types there, according to a source at the event.
“Honeywell hosts a variety of events for customers to meet face-to-face with its business leaders during the Paris Air Show and other trade shows on a regular basis,” company spokesman Bill Reavis said. “These are widely attended events and guests often include government officials. Honeywell strictly obeys and observed all government ethics rules.”
Also that afternoon, about 220 people gathered at the Ritz for the Raytheon event. Guests had a choice of a traditional tea service upstairs — popular with spouses of air show attendees, including the wife of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — while industry officials and others congregated at the bar.
“The company took precautions to ensure attendance by U.S. government and Congressional officials was in accordance with rules and regulations,” Raytheon spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.