Coalition Letter to House - Convention Parties

Campaign Legal Center * Common Cause * Democracy 21
League of Women Voters * Public Citizen * U.S. PIRG

July 16, 2008

Dear Representative,

As you know, the new House ethics rules prohibit Members from participating in parties at the national nominating conventions that are paid for by lobbyists or lobbying organizations and are held to “honor” the Members. See sec. 305 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, Pub. L. 110–81, 121 Stat. 735 (HLOGA).

   The purpose of this rule is to prevent lobbyists and lobbying organizations from gaining favor and influence with Members by paying for lavish parties at the national conventions that, in essence, are the Members’ parties.

   Our organizations strongly urge you to comply with the purpose, spirit, meaning and language of this important new ethics rule by not participating in any lobbyist financed party at the coming national conventions that in any way “honors” you, either individually or as part of a group of Members.

   The organizations include the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

   In a memorandum dated June 14, 2007, the House Ethics Committee set a high standard for Member compliance with, and for the Committee’s enforcement of, the new ethics rules adopted in January 2007, and specifically warned against circumvention:

Members and staff should keep in mind that the intent of the House gift rule is to protect the integrity of the House. The House Code of Official Conduct requires House Members and staff to adhere to the spirit as well as to the letter of the Rules of the House. Narrow, technical readings of the House gift rule should be avoided. Memo at 1 (emphasis added).

   Instead of following its own warning, however, the Ethics Committee on December 11, 2007, issued an indefensible and incorrect interpretation of the new rule regarding lobbyist-funded parties at the nominating conventions.

   The House Ethics Committee’s guidance interprets the rule on parties that “honor” Members at nominating conventions to apply only where a party is held to honor a specific Member. The Committee states, “Thus, an event that is organized to honor a delegation or caucus, without naming any specific Member of the delegation or caucus…would be an event that Members may participate in under clause 8 of House Rule 25….There is no numerical requirement on the size of the delegation or caucus participating in the event.”

   This incorrect interpretation of the new House ethics rule is simply an invitation to circumvent and ignore the rule. We urge you in the strongest terms to reject the interpretation and instead to comply with the rule.

   No one can seriously contend – and citizens certainly won’t believe – that the purpose and effect of this new ethics rule is to stop lobbying groups, such as an energy trade association, from paying for a six-figure party to “honor” a specific House member, but to allow this same energy group to pay for such a party to “honor” all of the Representatives who serve on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, or all of the Representatives from California or all of the Representatives who belong to a House caucus.

   This is an absurd interpretation of the rule because it would prohibit the narrowest form of the problem while “authorizing” much broader efforts by lobbyists to buy access and influence. In contrast, the Senate Ethics Committee has not issued a similar guidance with regard to its almost identical Senate ethics rule.

   We urge you to stay true to the purpose, spirit, meaning and language of the new ethics rule by declining to participate in any party funded by lobbyists that honors you, or any group of Members of which you are a part, such as a House delegation, a House Committee or a House caucus.

   We note that under the new lobbying disclosure law, any lobbyist or lobbying organization that funds an event to “honor” a Member will have to disclose this information on their lobbying disclosure reports, including the amount spent to “honor” the Member.

   Unlike the House Ethics Committee guidance on how to circumvent the new ethics rules, however, the guidance on the lobbying disclosure provision, provided by the House Clerk, has correctly interpreted the lobbying disclosure provision to cover all parties honoring a Member, or a group of Members.

   This means that all funds spent by a lobbyist or lobbying organization to pay for an event at the conventions to “honor” a Member, or a group of Members, including events to honor a congressional delegation, congressional committee or congressional caucus, will be disclosed on lobbying disclosure reports.

   The House Ethics Committee’s guidance also wrongly attempts to authorize lobbyists and lobbying organizations to finance parties to “honor” a Member simply by laundering their contributions through another entity.

   Our organizations strongly urge you to ignore this interpretation of the new House ethics rule. It is nothing more than a roadmap for lobbyists and Members to circumvent the rule, and it directly contravenes the spirit, purpose and meaning of the rule.

   The Committee’s guidance also wrongfully allows a Member to participate in an event funded by lobbyists if the Members’ name “appears, for example, in a listing of the names of the honorary host committee members for the event” so long as that listing also includes some non-congressional host committee members as well.

   This also would open the door to easy circumvention of the rule by misusing the announcement of the event. We strongly urge you to ignore this guidance and to comply with the spirit and purpose of the new ethics rule.

   Finally, we also strongly urge you not to participate in any lobbyist-funded party to “honor” you that is held during the weekend before or on the eve of the conventions. Your participation in any such party would be contrary to the clear spirit of the new ethics rule.

Campaign Legal Center * League of Women Voters
Common Cause * Public Citizen
Democracy 21 * U.S. PIRG