Members Flying High in City of Light

Posted July 17, 2007 at 6:30pm

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.

That evening, United Technologies Corp. hosted a kickoff reception for air show attendees at the Rodin Museum in the city’s famed Left Bank. Among the 1,100 who turned up were Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), both defense appropriators, and Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.). Attendees snacked on hors d’oeuvres and sipped cocktails and sodas, according to UTC spokesman Jay DeFrank. He described it as “a business event that provides an opportunity for customers, investors, media and other key stakeholders attending the air show to mingle.”

Keeping things rolling that night, the Aerospace Industries Association hosted a dinner in honor of Stevens, who was at the show as President Bush’s representative. For the event, about 150 people converged on the Pavillon Dauphine, a palatial restaurant on the edge of a park. Built by the city of Paris in 1913, it was formerly used to host visiting delegations, according to its Web site. “The terraces in the exclusive park were also highly appreciated during the summer season,” the site says.

Stevens and Harkin both addressed the crowd, as did AIA President John Douglass.

Prompted by corruption scandals that helped drive Republicans from power last year, Congressional leaders have made enacting tough ethics and lobbying reform a top priority. House lawmakers adopted sweeping ethics reforms as rules changes, and both chambers have since passed bills to tighten lobbying laws that were hailed by outside reform advocates as breakthroughs.

Progress on negotiating differences between the two measures has snagged over objections from Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who wants guarantees that earmark disclosure requirements will be preserved. And with the August recess approaching, outside advocates are publicly expressing worry that the steam has drained out of the reform drive.

Meanwhile, with reforms hanging in limbo, lawmakers and staff have had to navigate murky standards dictating how to interact with industry officials and lobbyists. Concerns over appearances have curtailed not just privately funded travel — banned in the House but still kosher in the Senate — but also government-sponsored trips.

For the first four months of this year, lawmakers and staff embarked on fewer than half the official trips they took over the same periods in 2005 and 2006 — and spent only a quarter of the money doing so, according to figures from CQ PoliticalMoneyLine.

Congressional officials have mostly avoided recent stagings of the Paris Air Show because of heightened tensions with France over the Iraq War. The passage of time and a new French regime contributed to a thaw this year that witnessed the return of a sizable American delegation.

Lawmakers and lobbyists said the show is a crucial opportunity to represent American industry to its international competitors in the highly competitive aerospace sector. Mostly, Congressional visitors keep their days packed with meetings and visits to contractors’ stalls at the expo.

“It is critical to demonstrate the Congress’ commitment to supporting U.S. industry at home and abroad and Sen. Allard took the opportunity to remind contractors and industry representatives how important it is to avoid cost overruns on defense related projects” Allard spokesman Steve Wymer said in a statement.

The AIA’s Douglass said in a statement to Roll Call that the presence of lawmakers “demonstrates our nation’s commitment to other countries as current or potential allies. At the same time, it lets the Members see U.S.-manufactured advanced-technology aerospace products, as well as the competition they face in the global market. This allows lawmakers to make more informed decisions to advance U.S. economic opportunities.”

Joining Stevens, Shelby, Harkin and Allard in the Senate delegation were Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), another defense appropriator, and James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) went with a state delegation.

In recent years, such official trips — or CODELS, as they are known — have become popular attractions for defense lobbyists looking to cozy up to authorizers and appropriators far from the glare of Beltway scrutiny, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal. The report documented several cases of lobbyists picking up lawmakers’ tabs for expensive meals in apparent violation of limits on such gifts.

Despite their opulence, receptions surrounding the recent air show were firmly within the bounds of the rules, thanks to the exception for widely attended events, ethics experts said. In both the House and Senate, there is no ceiling on what hosts can spend on feeding Congressional guests at such events. To qualify, at least 25 people have to show up, they must represent diverse interests and the event must have some relevance to Congressional officials’ duties.

The sheer size of the events in Paris ensured the receptions would meet the first two qualifications. Mingling with industry representatives on an official trip to learn about that industry would easily satisfy the ethics panels’ requirement that the events relate to Congressional business, said Jan Baran, a compliance expert.

But, Baran added, the cigars at the Ritz — because they aren’t food — likely would be considered a gift in violation of the rules, and staffers were smart to reject them.

“They should have been that sensitive a couple years earlier,” he said.