After taking the day off from fundraising in honor of those who died on September 11, lobbyists will once again resume wining and dining members of Congress.
According to the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time database
, which details who, what, where, and how much money is being funneled to legislators under the guise of breakfasts, lunches, dinners, fishing trips, and baseball games, Wednesday will see 11 gatherings for both Democrats and Republicans, followed by 13 on Thursday and six on Friday.
However, since lobbyist-sponsored parties are no longer permitted under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) of 2007 which, the Sunlight Foundation says, “put many new restrictions on how and whether members of Congress may be feted” by lobbyists, lobbyists no longer throw them. Or do they?
“Much to my surprise, lobbyists have gotten a lot smarter this year,” Craig Holman
, legislative representative for non-profit government watchdog Public Citizen, tells me. “They set up a couple of political consulting firms that are not Lobbying Disclosure Act participants. Even though these consulting firms were set up by the lobbying firms, they are considered distinct organizations. They have the exact same amount of influence, doing the same exact wining and dining of legislators, but this is how they got around the ethics rules.”
While this may not violate the letter of the law, it "certainly violates the spirit of the law," says Holman.
The Rules Bend Just as Easily as They Break
Here’s how it’s done:
“Boots on the Bay” was just one of the many similar soirees held during the GOP National Convention last month. Attendees could “sponsor” the event
at levels ranging from a $5,000 donation (which included “limited billing and signage” and five tickets) to $50,000, which granted donors “top billing and signage” and 55 tickets.
To gain access to members of the Oklahoma Senate and Congressional delegation and staff, all one needed to do was write a check and RSVP to someone named Amy Ford Bradley at what appears to be a personal email address -- just a friendly, down-home gathering of a few like-minded Oklahomans in the Florida sun, right?
Not really. "Boots on the Bay" was organized by a group called GOP Convention Strategies. The company describes its mission
as one that aims to “help our clients get the most bang for their convention buck.”
Those clients, as listed
on GOP Convention Strategies’ website, include (among many others) Koch Industries, Fox
(NYSE:F), and Verizon
(NYSE:VZ). And, “Whether your goal is to connect with important decision makers, get the voters and the media to focus on your agenda, or simply to host a great event,” GOP Convention Strategies says they will “help you maximize the impact of your investment.”
So, Are They Lobbyists?
Depends on your definition of “lobbyist.”
Darrell Henry co-founded GOP Convention Strategies in 2008, the year the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act went into effect. However, GOP Convention Strategies is not registered as being engaged in lobbying activities. With that in mind, Henry’s bio explains that he “also operates ROQ Strategies, an advocacy, government relations, and public affairs firm based in Washington, DC, which focuses on agricultural, emergency preparedness, energy, environmental, natural resource, transportation, and utility policy issues and coalition building.” He also “spent seven years as the Director of Public Affairs at the American Gas Association, where he earned his place as a key player in major federal energy policy development,” is “a former Chairman of the National Energy Resource Organization,” and served on the staffs of three Republican politicians.
While all of these activities certainly sound like lobbying, only one thing actually makes Darrell Henry a lobbyist -- this:
Other “non-lobbyists” on the GOP Convention Strategies staff also happen to be experienced government hands, including a former George H.W. Bush staffer, a George W. Bush appointee, a one-time political director for the National Senatorial Republican Committee who also served as executive vice president for public affairs at the American Gas Association, as well as the aforementioned Amy Ford Bradley – a principal at the Direct Connect Consulting Group
who “has been actively involved in political fundraising and strategy for the past 18 years and served in top-level positions under Chairman Phil Gramm and Chairman Mitch McConnell at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.” (Direct Connect demonstrates how flexible the rules can be about what does and does not constitute lobbying, insisting on its website
: “We do not lobby; we focus behind-the-scenes to position your advocacy team to be at the forefront of opportunities that ensures your company stays a step ahead. We elevate your company's voice through the creation and implementation of a customized strategy. We research
and then reach out
to companies with similar interests to create a coalition to maximize your voice, and design a plan to spend your hard-earned PAC dollars in a setting that will get the undivided attention of policy makers.”)
An Uphill Battle
“I’m trying to shut down parties that are hosted by lobbyists, honoring members of Congress,” Craig Holman, says.
Sadly, he’s not having much luck.
In 2008, the last time the quadrennial political conventions were held, Holman embarked on a similar “bird-dogging” campaign in partnership with the Sunlight Foundation.
“Out of 400 parties, I was able to shut down one,” Holman says. “I’m hoping to double my record this time around.”
Though carefully arranged to land just this side of the law, legislators can get testy when challenged.
At another event put on by GOP Convention Strategies and sponsored by major transportation companies including BNSF Railways
(NYSE:BNI) and Norfolk Southern
(NYSE:NSC), George Zornick of The Nation asked
Senator Jim Inhofe (himself involved in legislation stripping thousands of railroad workers of federal minimum-wage and overtime protections) who was throwing the party.
“[I]t’s a transportation thing. Transportation industry,” Inhofe replied, before claiming not to have “met many” lobbyists inside and calling Zornick a “punk” before walking away.
Indeed, the GOP is far more adept at wringing large amounts of money out of deep-pocketed donors.
“On the GOP side is where the worst of it is,” says Holman. “It’s an amazingly sad state of affairs.”
However, neither political party is blameless.
The one event out of 400 Craig Holman was able to shut down four years ago?
“A lobbyist-sponsored party for the House freshman Democrats who had just been elected to office in 2006,” he told me in an email message, “on an ethics platform.”
Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @chickenalaking