Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Party Favors

Mother Jones   July/August 2004


New campaign finance rules haven't stopped lobbyists from bankrolling lavish fetes at the conventions.

The organizers of the "Good Ol' Honky Tonk Salute" are throwing a down-home affair-with barbecue, blue jeans, and country music-in honor of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

They're holding it hundreds of miles from Barton's Dallas congressional district in a Manhattan banquet hall during this summer's Republican National Convention. According to an energy industry lobbyist, the party's hosts- who paid $20,000 a pop to help cover the expenses-include the Nuclear Energy Institute, the National Mining Association, and the power companies' trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, all of which have closely followed Barton's work on the latest energy legislation. "He's a longtime friend," says the lobbyist.

Friend, indeed. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was supposed to end such corporatesponsored shindigs, prohibiting lawmakers from soliciting contributions for their convention events. The law didn't, however, bar "friends" from independently hosting such events on behalf of members of Congress. And it didn't outlaw senators and representatives from throwing convention fundraisers for their favorite charities. So in both New York and Boston, the site of the Democratic convention, these affairs have become yet another way for lobbyists to curry favor with legislators. The event planners are trying to make a splash with exclusive dinners, late-night parties at trendy clubs, and concerts with the Boston Pops and Lynyrd Skynyrd. "The convention parties are about influence and ego," says W. Michael House, chairman of the legislative practice at Hogan & Hartson, one of Washington, D.C.'s biggest lobbying firms.

For instance, Linda Bond, a party planner for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), faxed a memo to lobbyists last fall, warning that his convention party's "success is hugely important to Senator Frist." The September 1 gala at Rockefeller Center features a concert, a general reception, and a VIP reception showcasing "all of the Senator's Republican Senate Colleagues," the memo notes. A $250,000 gift brings 10 tickets to the VIP event, 50 tickets to the general reception and concert, and entrée to another VIP event with Frist at the convention itself. The proceeds go to a foundation established by Frist, World of Hope, which will divvy the post-party money among five global AIDS relief groups.

Another convention-related event that could have lobbyists lining up at the door is the August 30 "Salute to the Financial Services Committee," which benefits a charity affiliated with Rep.

Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. A party planner says that Oxley's bash is at the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center and that Frank Sinatra Jr. will be performing. The organizers are asking for donations of up to $100,000 to the American Council for Excellence and Opportunity, which supports "programs that encourage and support free market philosophies." Oxley is the group's honorary chairman. Like all the charity-hosted events, the corporate contributions not only cover the party costs but are tax-deductible.

The Democratic convention also has its share of partying. According to one Democratic fundraiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Senator Ted Kennedy (Mass.) is being feted by eight "friends" throwing in $100,000 each for a private concert by the Boston Pops, which will perform a composition by John Williams, composer of the Star Wars theme. The gaming and mining industries are throwing a lunch for 40 people on July 26 in honor of Senator Harry Reid (Nev.), the Senate's Democratic whip, according to Walton Chalmers, vice president of the American Gaming Association. And while Senator John Breaux (La.) is retiring this year, that hasn't stopped him from continuing with plans for a reprise of his Mardi Gras bash from the convention four years ago. This one will be at the New England Aquarium, with performances by Ziggy Marley and Buckwheat Zydeco. One of the event's organizers, Wayne Smith, a former Breaux chief of staff now lobbying for RJ Reynolds and Union Pacific, says that hosts are being asked to donate as much as $50,000 for a party costing up to a half-million dollars.

The conventions weren't always so flush with corporate money. "The thing is out of control," says House, the Hogan & Hartson lobbyist. At the 1980 Democratic convention, he recalls, there was a small party financed by lobbyists, but another such event was not held among the Democrats until the 1988 convention in Atlanta. "Then the lobbyists said, 'Hey, man, this is a great way to work members,'" House says. Over the next 12 years, corporations upped their spending on increasingly lavish affairs for members of Congress at both parties' conventions. "1996 was hot, 2000 was obscene, and 2004 is going to be even worse," House adds.

The excess has sparked a backlash, fueled by such campaign watchdog groups as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Democracy 21. In May, under attack from critics, Celebrations for Children, a charity affiliated with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), canceled a week's worth of convention-related festivities honoring the congressman. Around the same time, the insurance giant AFLAC called off its plans for a charity-benefit concert, "Rockin' on the Dock of the Bay," in honor of eight Southern Democratic senators.

Still, many lobbyists view these events as a golden opportunity. One politico actually organized a seminar in March for inside-the-Beltway lobbyists on how to throw convention parties in New York. According to the Washington Post, the invitation to the event advised, "Tens of millions of dollars will be spent by your clients and competitors during the GOP convention in New York.. Lasting impressions will be made; connections, branding and marketing opportunities created; and residual relationships formed."

At the Republican convention, relationship building begins on Sunday, August 29, with a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert for senators Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Saxby Chambliss (Ga.) and several other Southern congressional Republicans. The sponsors include the Edison Electric Institute and the electric power company Southern Co., both of which gave $50,000, and Deloitte & Touche, an accounting firm, which contributed $25,000. "People in politics are going to be at these events," says Brandon Winfrey, a Republican fundraiser who is organizing the concert. "They are going to have fun; they are going to want to thank somebody. And whom are they going to be thankful to? The sponsors."

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg