Lobbying ethics rules limit chances to see new technology at key trade show

Some of the dozen or so staffers who attended this year's show had to skip keynote speeches and industry panels because they were scheduled outside of their day-long window. One staffer told me that, at a CES show a couple of years ago, he had to leave before his boss was scheduled to speak.  The office would have had to send another aide to staff the Member an additional day--an expensive trip to make.

The system puts smaller companies at a major disadvantage, one senior staffer told me. The big companies like Microsoft, Intel and Qualcomm all have Washington-based offices with lobbyists who can meet with lawmakers anytime.

But CES is really the only chance the young and little-known companies can get an audience with Capitol Hill insiders.

"It's really unfortunate that our time is cut so short at a place that could be so useful to us," the staffer said.

Rep. Darrell Issa ended up being the only lawmaker to attend the show. Issa, a tech industry veteran, was CEO of an automobile security product company, and has been coming to the show for 28 years.

Issa said the ethics rules are responsible for keeping other lawmakers in Washington. He paid his own way to the show so he could stay longer.

"If you come here as a guest of the show, you can only be on the ground for less than 24 hours, so it really is very restrictive," he said.

One of the unintended consequences of the lobbying rules, Issa said, is that "people can still go for a week to Israel from AIPAC but they can't come here for two days to walk independently through all these great new innovations and get a feel from the companies about what government should or shouldn't do."

"That's a shame, but it's the way it is," he said.

A few staffers showed up today and tagged along with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski as he toured the floor.

There's plenty more to see, but they have to miss it. They'll be back in Washington tomorrow.

The FCC also has to follow rules set by President Obama's ethics pledge, which says agency employees cannot accept free meals or drinks. FCC employees paid their own way to the show and every other show-related event.

As a result, Genachowski is not attending a dinner tonight with communications officials from other countries.

"Have we gone too far as a nation to where you can't host your counterparts from around the world?" said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. "It's just ridiculous."