WASHINGTON – It is billed as an opportunity to schmooze directly with members of the House Democratic Caucus, complete with celebrity guests, private patio, and VIP room.
But the description of the “Late Night Charlotte’’ party at an “exclusive undisclosed private venue” on each night of the Democratic National Convention also boasts an unexpected side benefit.
“This event will be produced to comply with Congressional Ethics rules,” says the listing on an official convention website.
Even with potentially buzz-killing legal advisories, the big business of treating elected officials to lavish receptions will be in full swing at both presidential nominating conventions over the next two weeks. Democrats have tried to win a public relations advantage over Republicans by banning corporate sponsorships for the happenings inside the convention arena, but they left themselves plenty of loopholes. At both weeklong political rites, the flood of millions will continue largely unabated and the festivities will be awash in special interest cash.
Lobbyists and corporate sponsors will be holding brunches, golf outings, dinners, and late-night parties throughout Charlotte, home of the Democratic Convention from Sept. 4-6, and Tampa, which is hosting the GOP this week. During speeches and roll-call votes, arena skyboxes with well-stocked bars will be reserved for the use of big fund-raisers and corporate boosters. At the Republican convention, lobbyists and corporate sponsors offer the added attraction of throwing bashes aboard yachts.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a Washington trade group, is among a half-dozen sponsors of evening parties at each convention that will attract 500 to 600 people. Its events will be at a music hall in Charlotte and at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, with a floor-to-ceiling fish tank and a cigar lounge overlooking the harbor.
“We like to remind people that politics and a good cocktail have gone together for 300 years in this country, and we’re proud to be part of it,” said Mark Gorman, senior vice president for government relations at the council. “It’s a good way to show off a little bit.”
Sensitivities about appearances and compliance with ethics rules have resulted in some modifications to the typically well-lubricated proceedings, according to descriptions of the events and invitations collected by watchdog groups keeping track of dozens of invitation-only soirees.
Parties will feature multiple sponsors, with groups of senators and representatives as guests, to avoid violating five-year-old rules that prevent lobbyists from wining and dining a single member of Congress at a time. At most venues, finger food will be offered, in accordance with the “toothpick rule” that prevents members of Congress from accepting full meals from lobbyists.
Well-connected event firms have sprouted up to coordinate these activities, not just booking the venues but also making sure parties stay on the right side of the law.
Conventions 2012, a Washington events firm that has separate divisions for Democratic and Republican convention parties, is arranging events in both cities. The firm did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
DNC Convention Strategies, the firm’s division that is organizing parties in Charlotte, set up the “exclusive” Charlotte Late Night party, which is scheduled from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. on several consecutive nights. Descriptions of the event say the featured guests are “members of the House Democratic Caucus” – which is essentially all Democratic representatives.
Elected officials are taking some pains to distance themselves from the proceedings, even though they are invited and many will attend. A spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, which is chaired by Representative John Larson of Connecticut, said Larson and other House members were not involved in the planning.
“It’s not an official caucus event,” said Ellis Brachman, the caucus spokesman.
A 2007 ethics reform law and accompanying set of rules adopted by House and Senate ethics committees prevent small, intimate gatherings intended to exert influence on an individual lawmaker — and not just at conventions. But larger lobbying events at the conventions fall under an exemption that says members of Congress and staff may attend an event that is “widely attended,” meaning that at least 25 people from outside Congress will be there.
“They’re playing the game smarter this time around than they used to,” said Craig Holman, money and politics expert for Public Citizen, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington. “They are getting multiple lobbying entities to pay for the event. That gets around the ethics rules.”
In Tampa, transportation and infrastructure trade groups are hosting a party at Stump’s at Channel Side, an establishment within walking distance of the Tampa conventional hall. Invited guests include “House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members, Senate transportation leaders, and staff,” according to an invitation listed on the website of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog organization in Washington that is tracking numerous events at both parties’ conventions. Sponsorships for the event range from $5,000 for the bronze level to $20,000 for the platinum level.
Crabby Bill’s, a shoreside restaurant, will be the scene of a luncheon reception for “Western caucuses” and staff. The invitation does not reveal who is ponying up as much as $25,000 to sponsor the gathering.
From a ground-level viewpoint, with all the parties and special interest sponsorships, any difference in the ethical ambience at the two conventions will be difficult to discern. That may undermine a narrative that the Democrats have been trying to establish – that they are less beholden to lobbyists and corporate interests for their convention.
Democrats pledged to run a convention without direct corporate sponsorships. They are sponsoring a free festival open to the public in downtown Charlotte on Labor Day, instead of the usual convention activities, and are providing free tickets to President Obama’s acceptance speech on the final night.
“Unlike Charlotte, where Democrats are opening and closing the convention with public events, Republicans are hosting a four-day, exclusive event, catering to lobbyists and special interest donors like the Koch brothers,” said Melanie Roussell, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, referring to David and Charles Koch, major financial backers of conservative causes.
But in some ways the Democrats’ effort to occupy higher moral ground has backfired.
They have come under fire for finding ways around their own no-corporate-sponsor pledge. The convention host committee — Charlotte 2012 — established a second fund-raising arm last year called New American City to raise corporate cash to fund activities outside the convention arena and stadium. Democrats are also relying heavily on in-kind contributions from corporations for things like telephones and office space and have aggressively sought large contributions from a traditional constituency, labor unions.
Although registered lobbyists are not permitted to contribute to the main convention fund, they are permitted to bundle contributions from their corporate clients.
So instead of winning plaudits, the Democrats have been criticized for opening up fund-raising loopholes in their own policies. Press reports have been overwhelmingly negative, about convention organizers’ struggles to raise money and allegations of hypocrisy.
With the $10 million to $15 million that is estimated to have been raised by New American City, plus the $36 million goal for the convention, the total cost will come very close to the $55 million fund-raising target of the Republicans.
“On the one hand, they are trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, when they found out they couldn’t do it, they came up with ways to walk around it,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that advocates to reduce the influence of money on elections.
“This is a good step, it’s a good-faith effort, but it hasn’t been enough,” added Lisa Gilbert, acting director of Congress Watch for Public Citizen.
The result, she said, is an environment at both conventions that is about the same as it has been since 1996, when the political parties did an end-run around public financing for conventions with the establishment of separate “host committees” in convention cities.
The conventions, she said, “have basically turned into privately financed forays.”