National party conventions are known as much for their nonstop partying as they are for their politics — a time for lobbyists, politicians and corporate executives to gather at lavish receptions and elegant dinners.
But this year, members of Congress attending the Democratic convention in Denver next week and the Republican gathering in St. Paul in September are facing a more down-market prospect: bare-bones receptions where food eaten with forks has given way to finger food, where chairs have been removed and where meatballs may be served but not something heartier, like a hamburger.
And if the lawmakers want to listen to brand-name musical entertainment, they are going to have to reach into their own pockets. For a corporate event featuring the Beach Boys at the Republican National Convention, $25 is being collected in advance, and the same is true for a party featuring the disco group K. C. and the Sunshine Band.
Corporations and convention party planners are scrambling to comply with sweeping ethics rules in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 that prohibit lobbyists from paying for gifts, including meals and music, for members of Congress and their staffs.
The law also outlaws parties financed by lobbyists to honor elected officials. In years past, these parties were a centerpiece of convention entertaining and were seen as a way for corporations to curry favor with lawmakers.
But, in place of the old rules, confusion over what is legal has taken center stage.
Corporate lobbyists are spending as much time talking to their lawyers as to event planners to figure out how to put on a party without running afoul of the law. And party planners are trying to come up with innovative ways of providing protein to hungry conventioneers without crossing the line into an actual meal. Some lobbying groups have become so exasperated with the new rules that they have canceled events entirely.
“Trying to navigate these new rules is like trying to shoot the rapids of the Colorado River,” said Kenneth Gross, a Washington campaign finance lawyer who advises corporations and lobbyists. “Dealing with all the legal issues is proving to be a challenge.”
There will, of course, be plenty of parties, particularly at the Democratic convention, which will be a four-day festival of concerts with stars like Kanye West and Tony Bennett and a Hollywood extravaganza. While more modest in scale, the Republican convention will include jazz brunches, country music concerts and any number of hospitality suites.
A list complied by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, based on information collected by Quinn Gillespie and Associates, a lobbying firm, shows that there will be at least 370 parties at the two conventions, many sponsored by trade associations, lobbying firms and major corporations like Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Bank of America, Citigroup and Eli Lilly.
As with many measures passed by Congress — especially those directly affecting the members themselves — the new ethics legislation includes an array of loopholes that has added to its byzantine nature.