Activists to Members: Skip Parties

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:19pm

Government watchdog activists are appealing to Members to skip lobbyist-sponsored parties at the upcoming national political conventions, arguing that the fetes violate the spirit of House rules despite ethics panel guidance that suggests otherwise.

In a letter to House lawmakers on Wednesday, the groups asserted that attending the festivities could amount to an end-run on stringent ethics rules adopted last fall.

“This is a simple test for any Member of Congress,” Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said in an interview. “If a Member of Congress wants to blatantly and brazenly violate the clear meaning, purpose and language of this ethics rule, then they will make very clear what their standards are.”

Under the House rules, lobbyists or lobbying groups cannot host events that honor individual Members at convention parties, but according to guidance issued by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in early December, events that honor a group of Members, such as a state delegation or caucus, are permissible.

Reform groups including Democracy 21 have urged the House ethics panel to roll back its decision, but with no change to date.

“We urge you to stay true to the purpose, spirit, meaning and language of the new ethics rule by declining to participate in any party funded by lobbyists that honors you, or any group of Members of which you are a part, such as a House delegation, a House Committee or a House caucus,” states the letter, signed by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen, Democracy 21 and U.S. PIRG.

The letter goes on to note that under the new lobbying disclosure law, lobbyists must reveal the amount spent on such parties in reports to be filed with the Clerk of the House.

“Anyone who uses this indefensible House ethics committee guidance will be thumbing their nose at their constituents and will demonstrate a lack of interest in anything but having lobbyists pay for lavish parties,” Wertheimer said.

Reform advocates did not target Senators in Wednesday’s letter, citing the chamber’s own interpretation of the rules earlier this year.

The Senate Ethics Committee ruled that Senators can attend such parties only if the honorees represent a broad group — such as a state’s entire delegation — and not solely lawmakers. But Senators are nonetheless allowed to attend lobbyist-sponsored events as featured speakers, an activity that House lawmakers may not partake in.

Public Citizen’s Craig Holman said Wednesday that amending the guidance on convention party rules is one of several items the reform groups hope to see addressed in a package of reforms at the start of the 111th Congress.

In addition, the groups have called for strengthening disclosure rules that require Members to reveal when they are negotiating for new employment. Members must currently file such information with the House, but are not required to disclose it publicly unless they also opt to recuse themselves from voting on specific issues.

“It’s just outrageous that some of those rules are on the books,” Holman said.

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.