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K Street Preps for Holiday Party Scene

The prospect of aging lawmakers and lobbyists doing the moonwalk might seem frightening. But the Entertainment Software Association decided it would help draw a crowd to its holiday party to promote a new Michael Jackson video game.

“This is not your typical bright lights, cheese cubes and long speeches party,” said Erik Huey, senior vice president of government affairs for the association. But the ESA, which spent more than $1 million last quarter on lobbying, wanted a theme that would be a big lure to its first holiday party. The shindig will be held at the Rock ’N’ Roll Hotel on H Street Northeast.

With the holiday season here, the invitations are going out for the Michael Jackson party and dozens of other annual events that have long been viewed as a way for K Street to cultivate clients and schmooze with lawmakers and their staffs.

But in the past few years, some of these events have lost their luster as the slumping economy and more stringent ethics rules dissuaded some firms and associations from celebrating in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

“Big bashes are harder to come by,” said Ric Marino, a former lobbyist and fundraiser who is now a partner at Well Dunn Catering, which has catered events on Capitol Hill and downtown. He said that in recent years, the large law and lobbying firms “are not spending the money the way they used to.”

Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said the ethics rules have diminished the number of such events, but has not eliminated them.

She said the restrictions adapted in 2007 have posed fewer problems for holiday parties than for the lobbyist-sponsored events at the national political conventions. Most of the holiday events can easily accommodate the rules, which allow stand-up receptions with appetizers and cocktails, she added.

For lawmakers and staff to attend, the food and refreshments must be of nominal value and not be offered as part of a meal, according to a memo issued last year by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. Members and staff also cannot accept gifts that exceed the $100 annual maximum limit.

Fêting the New Majority

McGehee said that this season, she will be most interested in how aggressively K Street tries to use these parties to court House Republicans, who will take control of the chamber next year. She said that Republicans maintained close ties to lobbyists when they were in power before.

“Are people going to be lining up ready to throw a party for the new Republican leadership?” she said.

Many of these parties are scheduled for the first two weeks of December, when lawmakers are expected to be in town for the lame-duck session.

Those who are hosting the parties say they try to accommodate Capitol Hill staffers and lawmakers by adhering to ethics rules.

“We go out of our way to make it easier for them to police themselves,” said Matt Dornic, a spokesman for Quinn Gillespie & Associates, which is hosting a holiday party Dec. 2 at the St. Regis Hotel.

But he also noted that the party attendees include the firm’s clients and members of the media, who do not have to abide by such rules.

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