Lobbyists, Members to Be Out of the Cold Jan. 20

Posted January 14, 2005 at 5:57pm

The festivities surrounding President Bush’s second inauguration promise to swallow Washington whole this week, as thousands of visitors with officially issued tickets swarm upon the city for the parade and balls, amid ramped-up security that forces locals to plot their every move.

Given that environment, it is perhaps little surprise that many K Street lobbyists are politely bowing out of the officially sponsored activities and attending private functions instead.

“I don’t know what you get out of it,” said one Republican lobbyist of attending any of the official events. “Nobody’s been able to convince me what the benefit of it is.”

So as throngs of tourists brave the elements to watch the inaugural parade from viewing stands, lobbyists, their clients and Members of Congress will observe the quadrennial rite of packing offices along Pennsylvania Avenue to eat, drink, be merry, and maybe look occasionally out the window.

For many, the celebration provides an opportunity to bring clients together with Members in a casual atmosphere.

The firm Colling Murphy, for example, is hosting a reception Thursday at the Capital Grille on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.

Lobbyists at the firm have invited “people we know, friends, and people we’ve worked with,” said partner Patrick Murphy. The guest of honor will be the new Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

“It’s good for business and it’s good for the profile of the firm,” he said. “Any time you spend money in Washington, there’s a benefit.”

Most of the handful of restaurants on Pennsylvania Avenue have been booked for months.

Among the most forward-thinking trade groups is the National Association of Broadcasters, which reserved Signatures — the restaurant owned by now-embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff — a full year and a half ago, said restaurant manager Kathy Kain.

NAB lobbyists did not return calls for comment, but Kain said the event will be the “largest, most elaborate event the restaurant has hosted.”

Up and down the avenue, lobbying firms, corporations and trade groups have snared every other space for rent: the National Federation of Independent Business at Brasserie Les Halles, the Washington Post Co. at the Occidental Grill, Lockheed Martin at 701, and Fabiani & Co. at TenPenh.

And the unofficial fun isn’t limited to the daylight hours.

For $1,000 a ticket, inaugural revelers can join “The Ball After the Balls,” a star-studded event on Thursday sponsored by the nonprofit Creative Coalition and featuring singer Macy Gray. The Recording Industry Association of America is throwing a competing event at the waterfront club H20, featuring the band 3 Doors Down and ticket prices of about $1,000.

Those events, as well as a number of others, are open to anyone who can afford a ticket. A handful of other parties, like the Wednesday event at the 9:30 Club thrown by lobbyists John Green and Jeff Kimbell, are strictly private.

Tickets to that event are only available to the hosts’ clients, and other guests they choose to invite.

“Ours is focused on people who work in Washington,” Kimbell said, adding that he expects attendees to arrive with “educational materials” about their legislative priorities to share with Members and staff at the party.

“There’s a limit to the kind of relationships you can build under the fluorescent lights in Rayburn,” he said.

To help guide Members and staff through the dense thicket of hospitality events, the House ethics panel last month issued a memo reminding party-goers that they need to abide by the House gift rule.

Among other considerations, the rules allow Members and staff to attend events where food is limited to “hors d’oeuvres, beverages and similar items and does not constitute a meal.”

Several lobbyists planning parties said they’ve duly noted those rules — so Members and staff can look forward to filling up on finger foods.

Watchdogs aren’t expecting a genuine crackdown on ethics scofflaws, however.

“These people are not going to police themselves,” said Melanie Sloan, founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “And we should be concerned, because people aren’t throwing parties out of the goodness of their hearts.”

Jim Fabiani, whose firm is throwing the parade-watching party at TenPenh, disagreed.

A former history teacher and staff director of a House Appropriations subcommittee, Fabiani said his event is geared toward families and “not fundraising or political influence.”

“This should be about an affirmation of leadership and celebrating the peaceful transfer of responsibilities,” he said.

As a token of goodwill, the firm will be handing out tea and hot chocolate on the sidewalk outside the restaurant.