A Caribbean beach-themed party to honor Democratic Chief Deputy Whip Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana was the blow-out bash of this week's Democratic National Convention. The gathering, with a million-dollar-plus price tag, was held in direct competition with the proceedings on the convention floor.
As the National Anthem was being sung at the Fleet Center, a steel drum band, a team of voodoo dancers, and stilt-walkers were going strong when Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa arrived at the party.
Harkin expressed little concern about the scheduling conflict. "I'm getting ready to go to the convention," he said on his way inside.
The zydeco music was at full blast and the liquor flowing, at the very time Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was addressing convention delegates about the Republicans' connection to corporate wrongdoing and excess.
Sen. John Corzine of New Jersey arrived at the party in the middle of Kennedy's speech, but he had a back-up plan.
"Actually, we're going to go and watch in on TV in there," Corzine said. "I was told they were going to have TVs here."
There were no televisions inside the party, but there was quite a show, as seen on a tape of the closed party obtained by ABC News.
It showed Breaux playing the Cajun washboard through the night to the delight of the crowd, including corporate executives and lobbyists who picked up the bill.
Lobbyist Stuart Jarvis, who represents several big companies, thinks it is money well spent and candidly admits his clients' interests.
"Some want relief — regulatory relief," Jarvis said. "Some want passage of legislation that enables them to do more business in foreign countries. Some simply want access for government contracts."
Parties Yield Access, Face Time
Jarvis said by attending conventions, lobbyists are able to get much-needed face time with politicians.
"I think it pays to play. Face time is critical," he said. "Being at the Super Bowl of politics, it helps you continue to maintain that access and that face time."
Throughout the week, it was clear that the actual convention has been little more than an afterthought for many.
On Monday night, again as the convention was under way, American Gas Association executives and lobbyists were having a private dinner with the top Democrat on the Senate finance committee, Max Baucus of Montana.
Last night, as Sen. John Edwards was speaking, the recording industry, with many issues before Congress, was holding its A-list event featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"You've just got non-stop expensive parties going on, competing with each other and big money, big times, big influence buying," said Fred Wertheimer, president and founder of Democracy21.com, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.
He added: "If they get returns, these are very cheap investments because the stakes for the taxpayers are hundreds of million of dollars, can be billions of dollars in terms of corporate tax policies, energy policies and all of it."
Congress' ethics rules allow the unlimited convention spending, and the corporations are taking full advantage of it, just as they will next month at the Republican National Convention in New York.