How hard is it to toe an ethical line?

flickr photo / Ho0n

Cross posted at The Hill’s Congress Blog

All across Denver this week at the Democratic National Convention, the congressional ethics rules designed to curtail wining and dining between lobbyist and lawmakers are taking a beating. The drinks are flowing, the meals are being served and the lobbyists are lobbying–often in a free-wheeling atmosphere reminiscent of the celebrations at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s Signatures restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Public Citizen and others have been highlighting many of the lobbyist-sponsored parties at the conventions that seem to cross the line in violation of the new ethics rules. AT&T honored the “Blue Dog Coalition” at one party Sunday night and has another event scheduled to honor the Republican Main Street Partnership at the Republican convention next week in Minneapolis/St. Paul, despite a rule that prohibits lobbyists from hosting parties to honor “a member” of Congress at the conventions. And several lobbyists have sponsored formal dinners for lawmakers, despite the rules that ban such dinners unless they are part and parcel of an educational forum or conference and the lawmakers’ participation is part of their official duties.

Why are lobbyists and lawmakers so unconcerned about infractions of the new ethics rules? Because enforcement is virtually non-existent at the conventions.

Since the restrictions on wining and dining are congressional ethics rules, the burden for compliance rests largely with members of Congress and their staff, not lobbyists. Even though lobbyists have signed an oath that they will not encourage lawmakers to break the rules, technically making lobbyists criminally liable, it is extremely unlikely that any lobbyists will be charged with a crime for throwing a party.

Official enforcement of congressional ethics rules is the responsibility of the U.S. House and Senate ethics committees, comprosed of members themselves. Though the committees may impose penalties for violations by members and staff that range from a private letter of admonishment to expulsion from Congress for egregious violations, fewexpect any action at all from these committees. The House ethics committee has given a green light to lobbyist-sponsored parties that honor two or more members of Congress as a group, and informal advice from the Senate ethics committee has signed off on a recording industry-sponsored dinner and concert, as long as someone says something educational during the event.

When it comes to enforcement of the ethics rules concerning convention events, we cannot look with any confidence to the ethics committees. The Senate ethics committee appears more interested in protecting members than enforcing the rules. The House ethics committee will not even allow complaints by citizens against members and staff.

There is one last hope for enforcement of ethics: Public scrutiny. If the public gets disgusted with these influence peddling soirees–as indeed we all should–lawmakers may just show a little more caution in accepting invitations to party at the conventions.

Would it be too much to expect our lawmakers to do this without public pressure? What we really need is a group of members of Congress from both parties who agree to publicly boycott these lavish, industry-funded galas. Who is willing to step up to the plate?