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The price of influence just went up

Published February 13, 2007


Thank goodness Democrats have cleaned up the easy flow of money and favors from lobbyists to members of Congress. Why if it hadn't been for the "tough" new ethics rules passed by the House and pending in the Senate, lawmakers might be hosting Super Bowl parties or weekends at Disney World for $5,000 a pop.

Oops. It turns out that Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, held just such a party at the Super Bowl in Miami, allowing lobbyists who paid the fare to chat with him. Not to be left out, Nelson's Republican counterpart, Sen. Mel Martinez, will be holding a similar get-together this weekend at Disney World's Yacht and Beach Club resort.

In fact, the congressional clampdown on money and gifts from lobbyists could lead to, gulp, more money and gifts than ever. It's just that both sides had to learn how to play the game. The new ethics rules don't allow lobbyists to directly pay for a lawmaker's travel or perks (such as tickets to sporting events). A loophole, however, allows a steady flow of money with little restriction on how it is spent as long is it comes from a lobbyist's political action committee and goes into the lawmaker's personal political fund.

You can almost see the lobbyist and politician pantomiming the classic Monty Python skit about implied meaning, in which one bar patron says knowingly to another "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more."

Florida's senators are hardly alone in the game, according to research by the New York Times. A lobbyist can drink Starbucks coffee with Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., for $2,500; go skiing or fly-fishing (covers winter and summer) with Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for $5,000; attend a Who rock concert with Mary Bono, R-Calif., for $2,500 (for two, a bargain); get "manicures and muffins" at a nail salon with Sen. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, for $2,500; and on and on.

All the new rules have really done is make it a little more expensive to be a lobbyist. "I have to have some personal contacts to be a lobbyist," explained James Dyer of the firm Clark & Weinstock. "If the only ticket in terms of contact is these fundraising events, it is going to be costly."

Maybe you can never take the corrupting influence of money out of politics, but you would hope to remove the hypocrisy. Not with these rules. On his Senate Web site, Nelson claims he "worked hard to pass tough ethics rule changes" to "prohibit lobbyists or corporations from providing any gifts or travel to lawmakers."

Meanwhile, pass the peanuts, Go Colts! and let's talk about that government contract, senator.

[Last modified February 13, 2007, 01:03:43]

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