Lobbyists reconsidering lavish holiday parties due to concerns over recession

Tough economic times and stricter ethics rules are keeping a lid on seasonal cheer as lobby firms and trade associations plan more modest soirees than the parties of holidays past

Lobbyists for several firms and business groups said they were cutting back in consideration of the economic downturn. And as they weighed who was nice enough to receive an invitation, many also said they were consulting lawyers — the Scrooges in this story — to make sure the events comply with the rules that prevent lawmakers and their staffs from accepting gifts from lobbyists, including fancy meals.

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Given the economic and ethics issues, some firms and trade groups have decided to skip the holiday party altogether. A spokesman for the American Bankers Association said the trade association has canceled its annual holiday party.

The cutting-down goes beyond K Street. Government agencies are scaling back as well.

The Treasury Department is hosting an employee-only party that will be paid for by senior Treasury employees, an annual tradition. But unlike previous holiday seasons, Treasury is skipping its so-called “outreach” party, meant for congressional aides.

And in a move that is sure to lead to more bad press for the department, Treasury officials have decided to cancel the annual party it threw for reporters.

Taxpayers may not mind, however, since they paid the tab for both the outreach and press parties.

Given the collapse of the financial markets, which helped fuel a global recession, financial firms in particular seem to be in less of a mood to celebrate.

“This is not a party atmosphere,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable.

The trade group is hosting an event, but the party budget “will be pretty low,” Talbott said.

The Roundtable is hosting a small reception at its Washington headquarters and is partnering with a charity that helps the homeless, So Others Might Eat. Guests to the Roundtable’s reception can contribute canned goods and personal items to the group.

“This is about camaraderie, not about food and drink,” he said.

Talbott said that his association will invite congressional aides and regulators from the administration but that the event will comply with ethics rules. A 2007 ethics law bans all gifts between lobbyists and congressional aides, but exceptions are made for widely attended events and hors d’oeuvres that don’t qualify as meals.

“Everything will be scrubbed from a legal standpoint. That is just the reality of the world we live in,” Talbott said.

Congressional aides and lobbyists contacted for this article said they had received fewer holiday party invitations than even last year, when companies first started to scale back significantly.

Some said the new ethics law has put a damper on the inside-the-Beltway cocktail circuit.

A Republican lobbyist said that since the gift ban, talk of holiday parties has been “way, way down” and that most firms would not invite congressional aides because of the ethics rules.

But lobbyists at some firms are keeping with tradition.

American Defense International, a well-known defense consulting and lobbying firm, is holding its holiday party at Hotel George this year. Mike Herson, the head of ADI, said the party has been scrutinized by the firm’s legal team and found to be ethics-rules-compliant.

A holiday party is one of “the only things that we are allowed to do,” Herson said. “I make the ADI party the defense industry party even if we do not represent certain companies. I want it to be a fun defense industry holiday party.”

Quinn Gillespie & Associates is hosting a reception next week at the W Hotel’s P.O.V. roof terrace and lounge.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Gas Association, the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Edison Electric Institute are all hosting holiday receptions.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting its annual party, which is typically a hot ticket in Washington. The National Association of Broadcasters is also having a reception at its headquarters on N Street this year.

But the events are likely to be less opulent than they once were. As one Washington insider put it, “the days of renting out the Air and Space Museum” for holiday parties are over.

Lockheed Martin will hold a holiday reception, and Italian defense conglomerate Finmeccanica likewise has an event planned. But Northrop Grumman and Boeing do not have any holiday events scheduled.

EADS North America, the U.S. arm of the European defense conglomerate, used to have a large holiday party. Last year, though, the company instead made contributions to charitable organizations that support members of the military and their families. The company will do the same this year.

“We’ve decided, in lieu of a holiday celebration, to once again make contributions to organizations that benefit service members and their families,” said Guy Hicks, EADS’s spokesman.

During this time of year those contributions are especially important, given the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hicks added.

Some well-connected Washington insiders are still holding large house parties that past attendees describe as events people want to go to, not events they have to attend.

Those parties usually attract an eclectic crowd looking to have a good time.

Jim Courtovich, managing partner of Kearsarge Global Advisers, is kicking off the house holiday party season on Dec. 5. Ron Bonjean, the former GOP communications aide who now has his own public-relations firm, follows with his yearly holiday party on Dec. 12.

Silla Brush contributed to this article.