Politics & Policy

Cant on the Hill

No such thing as a free lunch.

Washington’s lobbying industry made $2.58 billion last year — not by producing anything useful, but by using influence and reaching into the next guy’s pocket. Usually, that “next guy” is the under-represented taxpayer.

This makes it difficult to feel sympathy when lobbyists complain about the new congressional ethics laws — having to fill out individual disclosure forms with more information, for example. But has any lobbyist ever bought a congressman by buying him a $50 lunch?

As of this week, I understand why some lobbyists might be a bit miffed that they are no longer safe giving congressional employees gifts worth less than $50 (for $100 total per year). On Monday afternoon, a congressional staffer refused to let me pick up the tab at lunch. It’s the first time this has ever happened to me.

I became immediately suspicious when he stuck to water and refused to join me for a Sierra Nevada. It was not until the end of the meal that he revealed his intentions: “I just can’t let you pay with the new ethics rules,” he said. Under these rules — or at least under the interpretation that some lawyers are following for fear of becoming the first to break them — staffers are not allowed to take anything of any value, including meals, from a lobbyist or from anyone who is employed by anyone who employs a lobbyist.

“I’m not a lobbyist,” I told him. “There’s no ethics problem here. In fact, as a journalist, it would be unethical for me not to pay for your lunch.”

But he wasn’t persuaded by my sophistry. “No, I have to check with our counsel,” he said. I shrugged and asked the waiter to split the bill.

In fact, my lunch companion was wrong. National Review Online doesn’t employ a lobbyist, so anyone on Capitol Hill can eat and drink on our dime without fear (don’t get any ideas though; I’m new here — no gold card). The waters are much murkier for the Washington Post, whose parent company shelled out $91,000 for an in-house lobbyist through the first six months of the year, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. (Not only did the Post lobbyist cover the Free Flow of Information Act, but he also lobbied on such varied issues as immigration reform, No Child Left Behind, and the District of Columbia Appropriations bill.)

Can Post reporters still buy lunch for sources on Capitol Hill? It is doubtful that anyone will crack down on the press, but is it technically illegal? That newspaper is certainly not alone in employing or retaining a lobbyist, yet it is a time-honored practice for all reporters to pay for lunch or drinks — it’s never been considered a bribe, but rather a way of making work a bit more pleasant for everyone. (Does anyone enjoy discussing legislation without throwing back at least one shot? Or at least a cup of coffee?) In a bipartisan ethics background briefing I attended Thursday at a law firm on K Street, several reporters were told that journalists could thus fall afoul of the law as it is written. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 provides no exception allowing members of the press to pick up the tab if they work for companies that employ congressional lobbyists.

This is just one of many absurd results of an absurd law that never had any value to begin with. Most staggering is the arbitrary nature of many of the new rules instituted by the ethics-do-gooders. The ethics briefing I attended featured such baffling ethics interpretations as this: It is now kosher to provide lawmakers and staffers with “standing-up food” (hors d’oeuvres, for example), but gravely unethical to provide “sitting-down food.” This piece offers one attorney’s slightly different interpretation: carbs are acceptable (bread, crackers), but nothing containing protein, since that could be seen as a “meal.”

This year’s ethics- reform bill was supposedly inspired by the misdeeds of lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Rep. Duke Cunningham (R., Calif.). Yet both of them did things that were already illegal before the new law was even a twinkle in Sen. Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) eye. Both wrongdoers are now in prison serving substantial sentences for something that had nothing to do with carbs, proteins, or lunch tabs, but rather with free boats, envelopes full of cash, and phony nonprofits that funded free junkets for members of Congress.

Yet Congress has no desire to pursue the real sources of corruption — the earmarking process and the disproportionate amount of power and money aggregated in Washington at the expense of our federal system. Nor would it ever dare restrict compensation for the act of lobbying the government. And so Congress instead addresses corruption by barring staffers from taking the occasional free beer from a lobbyist (or “employee of a lobbyist hirer”), as if a $5.00 demonstration of generosity will prompt congressmen to mete out $5,000,000 earmarks.

Although they would find it frustrating to discuss energy policy with lawmakers over glasses of tap water, lobbyists will surely be no less effective in influencing legislation under the Democrats’ new rules. The lobbyists have their ways — “small fundraisers” where they bring a check and pay for the senator’s meal, or “widely attended events” where the congressman eats for free. These arrangements are still allowed.

In what sense are we discussing “ethics” when the difference between right and wrong depends on the difference between standing and sitting, or between hamburgers and bagels? I just don’t remember any of this in Aristotle or Kant.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.


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