New ethics rules get St. Paul tryout

Republican lawmakers have worked to distance themselves from the scandals that, in part, cost them control of Congress in the 2006 elections, supporting stricter ethics rules meant to end lobbyist-sponsored parties, travel and gifts.

Yet like the Democrats in Denver, it's party time for Republicans next week during the four-day national convention at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Republican members of Congress, other elected officials and those who want access to them can drink cocktails and nibble appetizers at scores of receptions, relax in hospitality suites and skyboxes and take in concerts from the likes of the Charlie Daniels Band and Smash Mouth.

Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who has sponsored several ethics bills in recent years, says he looks forward to seeing how the new rules work at his party's convention, which begins Monday.

"There is always work to be done, and I hope that we can expand upon these reforms in the future to ensure greater transparency in government practices," Castle said in an e-mail.

Government watchdog groups such as Public Citizen say it's already clear that there needs to be a tightening of the rules — which were largely in response to the scandals surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January 2006 in a wide-ranging public corruption investigation, has cooperated with federal prosecutors and has been responsible "for the convictions of a member of Congress, five high-level legislative branch officials, one high-level executive branch official and two other mid- to low-level public officials," the Justice Department said in court documents filed Wednesday.

"The irony of all this is the laws and ethics rules that apply to the conventions are quite fine. The problem is that no one's enforcing them," says Craig Holman, Public Citizen's point man on congressional ethics. "The parties have changed somewhat in structure, but there are still these huge, lobbyist-studded soirees."

The exemption allowing lawmakers access to "widely attended events" with 25 or more non-lawmakers is a particularly large loophole, says Sheila Krumholz of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"How hard is it to round up 25 lobbyists to go to a party with the chairman of a committee which affects their interests?" she said.

Holman says he plans to seek changes in Congress, including:

• A ban on members of Congress attending convention events sponsored or hosted by a lobbyist or an entity that employs a lobbyist.

• A ban on corporations and labor unions donating to the convention host committees. The law prohibits such contributions to the Democratic and Republican committees that organize the official convention events, but not the host committees that organize off-site events.

• Repeal or modification of rulings by the House and Senate ethics committees that have created "gaping loopholes" in convention restrictions, Holman says. For example, the law bans parties honoring one member of Congress, but the House ethics committee ruled that parties honoring groups of lawmakers are permitted.

The conventions provide corporations, ideological groups and other special interests a chance to press the flesh and press their cases with officials from mayors to members of Congress.

The Republican Governors Association (RGA) offers its donors the chance to meet with governors and other officials at parties, receptions and hospitality suites. For donations from $30,000 to $125,000 per night, companies can sponsor the group's skybox at the Xcel Energy Center.

"The skybox will be complete with food and beverages and Republican governors, senior staff and additional Republican VIPs will be invited," the RGA says in its brochure.

"We have the opportunity for them to come and talk policy, but we also have the opportunity to come and have a very good time," RGA spokesman Chris Schrimpf says. "It's the perfect opportunity for donors."

Drug company Pfizer is sponsoring parties at both conventions. Pfizer's presence allows its leaders to discuss health care with "key stakeholders" and "to ensure our company positions on this and other policy priorities are well-represented," spokesman Christopher Loder said in an e-mail.

The ethics rules, which ban members of Congress from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists, have put a damper on some of the partying.

The trade group for beer wholesalers provided beer or money to sponsor nine parties at the 2004 GOP convention in New York. This year, the National Beer Wholesalers Association did not want to be the sole sponsor for any events at either political convention, said Rebecca Spicer, the group's spokeswoman. "The change in ethics rules is one of the factors we considered when deciding how to participate in the conventions," she said.

Even Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), a watchdog group, is sponsoring a convention event. Through its lobbying arm, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste, the group is hosting a night at the Liffey, an Irish-themed bar across from the convention site.

"We are having a cocktail reception fully compliant with the ethics rules, toothpicks and all," CAGW President Tom Schatz says. "It's really meant to highlight the issue of wasteful spending and taxes to make sure that subject is something that people will discuss during the course of the convention."

The Price of Power is an ongoing series tracking the role of money in politics