It's standing room only at lobbying'ethics forums

As lobbyists scramble to master the ethics packages passed by the House and Senate, seminars explaining the new gift and lobby disclosure rules have become the new hot ticket in town.

As lobbyists scramble to master the ethics packages passed by the House and Senate, seminars explaining the new gift and lobby disclosure rules have become the new hot ticket in town.

An American League of Lobbyists event scheduled for tomorrow, which will review the ethics changes, is overbooked. The trade association has space for 160 people, but 170 have signed up, Patti Jo Baber, the group’s executive director, said.

And last Wednesday, lobbyists thronged to the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University to hear Kenneth Gross, an expert on lobbying rules at Skadden Arps, discuss the fine points of the new rules.

The speech, hosted jointly by the Public Affairs Council and the Bryce Harlow Foundation, was meant to last just an hour. But it ran over, as befuddled employees of lobby firms and trade associations bombarded Gross with queries only minutes into his lecture, despite his request that people hold their questions until the end.

They then pursued him after he left the podium to head to another engagement. “It was hard to get out the door,” he said.

Gross guessed that most of the 275 attendees weren’t lawyers but rather employees of trade associations and companies, many of them tasked with compliance roles. They weren’t asking how to skirt the rules, but how to avoid breaking them unwittingly.

“People are concerned and they really want to know,” Gross said.

The confusion swirled around how much lobbyists must charge lawmakers for tickets to concerts or sporting events when the price isn’t listed, as is often the case with skybox seats. The Senate passed legislation that would require lobbyists to factor in the cost of perks that often come with such seats, such as free parking.

But Gross implied that the calculations could be difficult.

“My takeaway: no tickets,” said Ben McKay, the senior vice president of government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America and an attendee, who insisted that accounting for the ticket’s value would be so complicated that there’s no way to get it right.

There were also questions about a new rule barring lobbyists from springing for sit-down dinners with members unless they are widely attended by a diverse set of invitees, such as clients from a variety of companies.

Gross warned that some heavy hors d’oeuvres might be construed as dinner fare, even if served at a standup reception.

His advice: Steer clear of serving filet mignon on a toothpick.

Among other changes, the bill passed by the Senate last week would bar gifts from lobbyists, require lawmakers traveling on corporate jets to pay full charter rates and extend the “cooling off” period before a former senator can become a lobbyist to two years. 

Helping to spur lobbyists to bone up on the new rules is the specter of criminal penalties. So far the House has passed ethics reform that only governs its members, though the leadership says it plans to push legislation that would extend to lobbyists. But the Senate bill would make it a felony for lobbyists to break certain rules.

Gross assured the crowd that plenty of details still need to be ironed out by the House Rules Committee and the Senate Ethics Committee. For instance, both chambers passed a rule that would bar lobbyists from traveling with lawmakers on any leg of an overnight fact-finding trip.

“Does that mean if I’m on a plane and a member’s on the plane, one of us has to get off? Or can we both stay, as long as we don’t sit together?” he cracked.