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.
Party organizers seek to provide features or food selections that will make their event a little different from the one down the street. At the Quinn Gillespie soirée, guests will be able to cozy up to a bar that serves mashed potatoes scooped into martini glasses ready to be embellished with various toppings.
“I am a mashed potato freak,” Dornic said.
Communications firm FD is also getting into the spirit of the season, throwing its first holiday party at Wolfgang Puck’s The Source restaurant.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to bring friends and clients together,” said Stacey Morton Bowlin, FD’s senior vice president. The menu for the event includes Kobe beef burgers, tuna tartar, a dumpling station and a sushi display.
The Recording Industry Association of America hopes to get people out of their downtown offices by again hosting its party at a well-known music venue: the 9:30 Club, a spokeswoman said. The group has also held events at the club in past years.
But some firms and associations have dramatically scaled back their parties, mindful that flashy events may not look good to their clients and membership when unemployment is high. The bigger parties, which draw hundreds of people, can cost between $50,000 and $100,000, say those who plan such events.
The American Trucking Associations had a reputation in past years for throwing extravagant holiday fêtes. No longer, spokesman Brandon Borgna said.
“Given the economic conditions, we are more conservative in our celebrating,” he said. Borgna added that the holiday party is now an in-house event just for employees.
“It’s a quaint get-together at our headquarters,” he said.
The Podesta Group, led by Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, doesn’t partake in the holiday ritual at all.
“We have never included holiday parties as part of our marketing strategy,” Podesta spokeswoman Missi Tessier said.
Others have adjusted to the new ethics environment by shedding popular customs. Soon after the new rules came out in 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce exiled Santa, who had posed for pictures with party-goers in years past. The chamber was worried that the photos of guests on Santa’s lap could be considered a gift of value and banned by the rules.
Tita Freeman, a chamber spokeswoman, said her group sent Santa packing not only because of the ethics rules, but also “because we were taking a fresh approach.”
She said the chamber’s party on Dec. 9 would be similar to last year with hundreds of guests.
“It is a very popular party,” she said. “We do invite Members and their staff, and it’s up to them whether or not to attend.” Freeman added that the menu and food service follow the ethics rules.
Other firms embrace less conventional ways to mark the season.
“We are doing cards and nice tchotchkes for our clients,” said Robert Raben, a principal in the Raben Group. Raben said his firm has thrown parties episodically over the years — but they are tied to holidays such as Three Kings Day, which occurs 12 days after Christmas.
Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said he doesn’t buy into some of the “bah, humbug” sentiment that has pervaded K Street this season. Some say there shouldn’t be holiday parties because it’s been a bad year or because Democrats lost in the recent midterm elections.
This year, Elmendorf’s firm, Elmendorf Ryan, is joining with two other outfits, Avenue Solutions and Sternhell Group, in hosting a party at the firms’ offices, which are all housed in the same building.
“I’m a big fan of Christmas and the holidays,” he said. “People who think you shouldn’t celebrate are grinches.”