Like the flow of the Mississippi or the winds of the Sahara, the pursuit of free alcohol, free finger food, and access to power is an unstoppable force. No puny ethics legislation shall stand in its way.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, passed after the Democrats took control of Congress, limited the ways in which lawmakers can hobnob with lobbyists, corporate officials, and special interests. But if Denver is any example, hobnobbing is a game and flexible beast, able to squirm over or around any obstacles placed in its way.
For example, there is a rule against lawmakers and their aides accepting meals from lobbyists. That means that every time a lobbying firm throws a party here in Denver, it has to follow the “toothpick rule.” Hors d’oeuvres only. If it fits on a stick, put it on one. This leads to odd scenes, like a woman at a party on Monday night eating a slice of pizza on a toothpick.
Hosts can play the music in the background, instead of throwing a concert, so lawmakers can’t be said to be accepting free music. They can take away chairs, because a standing-only reception is apparently less ethically questionable than an event where power players can schmooze while putting their feet up. Party throwers can distribute literature that advocates for a cause, making the event “educational.” Slate reported that the Distilled Spirits Council got away with hosting a bash for lobbyists and politicians on Monday by handing out literature on the dangers of underage drinking.
And of course there is the farce known as the “widely attended event,” a party that can have a high-roller host and an exclusive, undisclosed guest list as long as it makes a point of inviting 25 people who are not lawmakers. The rules may be shown the door, but you and I certainly aren’t getting in, as my video above illustrates.
Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation, a government oversight group, is trying to illustrate the ineffectiveness of current ethics restrictions by attempting to get into as many fancy receptions as she can, knowing she’ll be rejected time and time again. While it is not shocking that a party-crasher would get turned away at the door of a high-end party, it nicely illustrates that the infamous smoke-filled backroom is still alive and well, at least in a figurative sense, and that oversight has a long way to go.
I spent an afternoon with Nancy as she sought a lobbying firm’s reception, Democratic top-dollar donors, and a party thrown by the CEO of a telecom company. Not surprisingly, we ended the day without a single cucumber sandwich. [To see her try, watch the video above.] —Jonathan Stein