- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | They’ve long been derided in public by John McCain as part of what’s wrong in Washington. And during prime time of the Republican convention, some were even singled out for being “corrupt.” But that hasn’t kept special interest lobbyists and their corporate patrons from carrying on their normal business this week in the shadows of the Republican Party event, where they are hosting many of the 200 parties and receptions in the Twin Cities.

The Travel Industry Association hosted a reception Wednesday evening in a hangar at the St. Paul airport called “Celebrating America’s Skyline: A Toast to Travel, Hospitality, and Real Estate Across America.” Roger Dow, president of the association, said that lobbying groups like his need to have a presence at the convention if they expect to be taken seriously in Washington. “If you’re not here, you’re not seen as a meaningful group,” he said.

Ethics watchdogs have found little change in lobbying at the Republican convention in spite of all the bashing rhetoric.

“They seem to have plenty of access,” said Nancy Watzman, spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group. And they get that here, mostly at the lavish parties they throw.

Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is pitching himself and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the agents of reform in Washington, a duo who will go further than their Democratic adversaries to oppose the “special interests.”

“If John McCain was just another go-along partisan politician, he never would have taken on corrupt Republican lobbyists or big corporations that were cheating the American people or powerful colleagues in Congress who were wasting taxpayer money. But he did,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent, said from the podium Tuesday night in making the case for Mr. McCain’s election.

Industry groups have had to modify their free-spending ways to comply with new ethics rules. A few even asked lawmakers to pay a small fee to listen to live music at their events.

But they still hosted plenty of parties. The Distilled Spirits Council, the lobby for liquor, collected money for the victims of Hurricane Gustav, but also handed out alcoholic drinks, cigars and appetizers at its evening reception here earlier this week.

For many groups, there is no better place to make their case about legislation in Congress.

Southern Co.-owned Alabama Energy, which has more than a dozen federal lobbyists, hosted an invitation-only reception Wednesday for the Alabama delegation at a ritzy Minneapolis restaurant. At least two dozen people attended.

To be sure, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 put some new hurdles in the way of lobbyists and lobbying groups who wanted to hold such parties, but it didn’t close off their opportunity to attract a crowd.

“Politicians are more reluctant to engage in activities where lobbyists are going to be present,” said Mike Johnson, a principal of the lobbying firm OB-C Group.

But come they still did.

The 2007 law includes a prohibition against lobbyists or companies that employ lobbyists from buying meals for members of Congress. But they can still serve appetizers to the bigwigs. The result: Food in small portions is being served all over town, with toothpicks but no forks. Forks indicate a meal; toothpicks, an acceptable reception.

“If it weren’t so serious,” Mr. Johnson said, “it would be comical.”