George Zornick is a Washington reporter at The Nation.
Grand, lobbyist-funded bashes used to be a staple of the political convention scene — in 2004, for example, Senator John Breaux threw a huge Mardi Gras–themed party at the New England aquarium during the Democratic National Convention in Boston, complete with performances by Ziggy Marley and Buckwheat Zydeco and a half-million-dollar price tag.
But in 2007, as the Jack Abramoff scandal enveloped Washington, Congress passed reforms that banned, among other things, lobbyist-funded parties at the national conventions to "honor" lawmakers.
So in Tampa Bay and Charlotte this year, the party's off right? Not so fast.
Recently, ethics committees in the House and Senate have interpreted the law differently. While the Senate views it strictly, the House has determined that the law does not apply to parties that honor a group of members, a committee, or a caucus — only individual members. So under the House interpretation, bank lobbyists could throw lavish parties in Tampa Bay for Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee, for example, and it wouldn't violate the guidelines.
This has prompted a collection of eight good-government groups to send letters [pdf] to lawmakers this month urging them to play by the spirit of the 2007 law, and not the narrow House interpretation:
Our organizations strongly urge you to ignore this interpretation of the new congressional ethics rule. It is nothing more than a roadmap for lobbyists and Members to circumvent the rule, and it directly contravenes the spirit, purpose and meaning of the rule.
Finally, we also strongly urge you not to participate in any lobbyist-funded party to "honor" you that is held during the weekend before or on the eve of the conventions. Your participation in any such party would be contrary to the clear spirit of the new ethics rule.
The convention proceedings, and especially the evening parties at the conventions, are going to be closely monitored by the press. Any violations of the ethics rules will likely be broadcast on television and written in the newspapers. So we strongly encourage all Members in the House and Senate to preserve the integrity of the convention proceedings, as well as the integrity of Congress itself, by honoring the spirit and letter of the new ethics rules.
The Nation will be present at both conventions, and we'll surely be keeping tabs on who is partying with who — and most importantly, who is footing the bill.