Election 2008


Back now with Day to Day. We're just a few days away from the Democratic and Republican national conventions, a time for politics and, of course, partying. A new law passed last year was designed to tone down the party power of lobbyists, but it may not stop various corporations like AT&T, Bank of America, and Eli Lilly from throwing hundreds of huge bashes in both Denver and St. Paul. The Sunlight Foundation has been keeping tabs on these soirees. Nancy Watzman heads the group's Party Time project. She joins us now. Nancy, this law passed last year called "The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act" was supposed to reign in the lobbying power of big business. What exactly does it prohibit?

Ms. NANCY WATZMAN (Head, Party Time Project of the Sunlight Foundation): Well, what it prohibits is for lobbyists to throw a party, specifically, honoring a lawmaker. And we definitely saw that in conventions past, where, say, all the oil companies would throw a bash for the head of the Senate Commerce Committee. So, you're not seeing that, but what you are seeing is still parties thrown by a lot of these same companies. They're just having these parties in ways that they think will fit the law.

COHEN: And what exactly are they doing? You've counted, I believe, more than 400 parties. What sort of events?

Ms. WATZMAN: What we're seeing is a lot of parties by these corporations and a lot of these companies that are sponsoring the parties are also involved in all kinds of other ways. For example, AT&T is hosting more than a dozen parties at both the Democratic and Republican conventions. And they're also an underwriter for both conventions' host committees and that's the sort of thing that we're seeing.

COHEN: Nancy, I understand some of the rules that they've been able to kind of wiggle around have to do with what food is and isn't served. Can you explain that?

Ms. WATZMAN: Yes. There's something called the toothpick rule, which basically says that at certain parties, you can't serve any food while sitting down. It has to be limited to hors d'oeuvre and finger food, that sort of thing. You can't have a full fledged meal.

COHEN: You lived in Denver, I'm curious if you're hearing it all from caterers. Are they, you know, wracking their cookbooks, looking for every last appetizer recipe they can because they can't do sit downs anymore?

Ms. WATZMAN: Well, there was just a story out today about how folks at a restaurant called Tamayo here, where it's going to be the site for a number of parties, have taken out the chairs I guess and brushing off those hors d'oeuvre recipes.

COHEN: Nancy, what does this really matter? Are politicians really going to be influenced by going to a party at a museum sponsored by some big company and, you know, and having a couple of pieces of cheese and crackers?

Ms. WATZMAN: Well, it's how it all adds up. These parties provide access and when you go back to Washington, would you be more likely to answer a phone call from me or would you be more likely to answer a phone call from a lobbyist that you ate some shrimp with at one of these parties? You know, I think the answer is you'd probably answer that call from the lobbyist.

COHEN: Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation, thank you.

Ms. WATZMAN: Thank you. Bye-bye.

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