It’s a Holly Jolly Holiday for Congressional Parties

By Asa Eslocker And Joanna Jennings

Dec 12, 2007 2:12pm

With the lighting of the Capitol Hill Christmas tree came the tide of lavish parties thrown by big-time lobbyists for members of Congress. "The holiday season is just a festival of access to senators and congressmen," Richard Wiles, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, said of Capitol Hill’s party circuit. Photos: Holly Jolly Congressional Festivities ABC News found caterers working overtime as once again lobbyists spared no expense to entertain members of Congress and their staffs. THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS Blotter Congressional Dems Spell Reform: CA$H Photos Wining and Dining Continues With Dems in Power Blotter White House Dinner for Sale? Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage Under new congressional ethics laws, lobbyists can spend all they want on holiday parties as long as everyone is standing up. "You can no longer eat sitting down," Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to making government more accessible on the Internet, said. "There really has to be finger food. I think you can eat food that’s on a toothpick, but if it requires a fork or knife, forget it." And ABC News found plentiful spreads of catered food and well-stocked bars at elegant locations all over the capital — the kind of expense only the well-funded can afford. "There is no way we can compete with that kind of money and that kind of influence-peddling," Wiles said. As invitations to the holiday festivities specify, the new rules also require the events to be widely attended. But not so widely that ABC News cameras were welcomed at Union Station where the nuclear power industry was hosting its big bash for congressmen. Nor were they welcomed at another huge fete thrown by a big utility company. And then there were the parties right on Capitol Hill. Under House rules, lobbyist groups are not allowed to use congressional rooms for "commercial, profit-making, fundraising, political or lobbying purposes." The Georgia Electric Membership Corporation, a coalition of electricity companies, was one of many lobbyist organizations who threw a holiday reception in the Rayburn congressional building. Organizer Clay Robbins of Oglethorpe Power Corporation let ABC News into their party but couldn’t comment on camera because he said, "I’m on the clock" and had to answer questions about "renewables" to Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga., who was in attendance most of the night. The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) was given the cafeteria of the Rayburn Office Building for free, because their party, with 50 different kinds of beer, was supposedly considered an educational event, even though they called it a party. "They’re at a party," said Michael Johnson of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. "That’s perfectly ethical and legal." But it was not something one guest, Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn of Colorado, wanted to talk about. When asked if it was appropriate for the NBWA to be able to use Capitol Hill as a catering hall, Rep. Lamborn was whisked away, saying, "We’ll talk to you later." And the lobbyists quickly hid the name tags of the other members of Congress who were expected to show up. The Capitol Hill police were then called in, and ABC News cameras were told to stop rolling and bothering the lobbyists and their congressional guests with questions. So, as the snow fell outside and the free beer flowed inside, the cozy tradition of a holly, jolly lobbyist Christmas was safe for another year. Watch the full report tonight on "World News With Charles Gibson" at 6:30 p.m. ET. Do you have a tip for Brian Ross and the Investigative Team?

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