Undue Influence-Peddling to Look for at the Party Conventions

Red white and blue elephant and donkey representing the Republican and Democratic parties.Corporate lobbyists and other political creatures intent upon distorting our democracy are descending on the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention.

Their objective is simple: To schmooze with and buy the gratitude of lawmakers who might be in power after the elections.

Most of what happens will be the (disturbingly) run-of-the-mill, “corporate corruption as usual” that happens every day in Washington, D.C. During the conventions, what so many cynically call “how Washington works” becomes “how Tampa works” and “how Charlotte works.

But some of what happens at the conventions may cross the line from everyday political corruption (outrageous as it may be) into violations of Congressional ethics rules and even outright illegal activity.

With help from citizens and journalists (and citizen journalists) attending the conventions, we’re working to hold lawmakers and special interests accountable when they cross the line. But we need your help.

Attending one of the conventions? Here’s what you need to know to keep an eye out for undue influence peddling:

1. During the conventions, all members of Congress are banned from participating in any event held in her or his honor if that event is hosted by a lobbyist (or a corporation or special interest group that employs registered lobbyists). [Paraphrased from House Rule XXV(8); Senate Rule XXXV(5)]

This rule expressly prohibits members of Congress from attending any convention party thrown by a lobbyist or lobbying organization where a specific member or members are identified by name and title as the honoree (including as a “special guest”), as well as events honoring a group composed solely of members, such as a congressional committee or congressional caucus (though the House ethics committee so far refuses to apply the rule to parties that honor groups of members). Member participation also is prohibited if the member is to receive a special benefit or opportunity that would not be available to some or all of the other participants, such as if the sponsor were to offer the member an exclusive speaking role or a very prominent ceremonial role.

For an example of an event likely to run afoul of the spirit of this rule, look no further than the party being held today (Tuesday, August 28) by the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) – a.k.a. the “Yacht Lobby” – via its political action committee. The reception, touted as a “Day on the Water,” will honor the Congressional Boating Caucus. Odds are, this event will step around the technicalities of congressional ethics rules, since it is sponsored by the lobbying group’s PAC and it is billed as a “reception.” But make no mistake: today’s fete honoring the Congressional Boating Caucus is very much part of the influence-peddling game. (If you want to join the festivities, the reception is at Hula Bay Club, 5210 West Tyson Avenue, from 4-7 p.m. today.)

If you notice any possible violations of this rule, send a tip to action@citizen.org. Be sure to include any information about the event, such as a party flyer or a photograph of a sign.

2. The party conventions and their host committees are refusing to disclose the corporations, special interest groups and super-rich individuals that are shoveling contributions their way.

However, anyone attending the conventions can help us get a better picture of the full extent of corporate and special interest money at the conventions by taking photos of signs and flyers promoting events that are being funded by such groups. Email photos and tips to action@citizen.org.

3. Congressional gift rules prohibit lawmakers and their staffs from accepting gifts from lobbyists or lobbying organizations at the conventions, (except under the following circumstances):

  • Reception – Members and staff may attend a reception hosted by a lobbying organization, including food and refreshment of nominal value offered other than as part of a meal, known as the “toothpick rule.”
  • Widely attended event – Members and staff may accept dinner, refreshments and entertainment at a widely attended event. An event is considered widely attended when at least 25 people from outside Congress are expected to attend and the member’s attendance should be related to official duties. Free attendance does not include entertainment collateral to the event, such as a concert.
  • Charity event – Members and staff may accept free attendance at a charity event, provided the primary purpose of the event is to raise funds for a legitimate charitable organization.
  • Campaign fundraiser – Members and staff may accept free food, refreshments and entertainment in connection with any fundraising events sponsored by party organizations, campaign committees and other political organizations. Such fundraising events must comply with federal or state campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements.
  • Convention event – Members and staff may accept food, refreshments, entertainment or other gifts offered by the convention committees, party organizations and federal, state and local governments.

If you spot a lawmaker in circumstances that might violate this rule, be sure take a photo and email it to action@citizen.org.

Follow this link for additional background information.

If you’re not attending the conventions but are eager to join the fight against corporate and special interest influence on the RNC and DNC, take action today to urge the political parties to disclose immediately their convention funding sources and ban corporate money from future conventions.

Flickr image via DonkeyHotey