The convention stage may have been empty on Monday, thanks to Hurricane Isaac, but the corporate money machine grinded on as special interests with business before Congress put on swanky gatherings for key lawmakers.
It’s actually against Congressional ethics rules for lobbyists to throw parties for lawmakers at the national conventions—thanks to a 2007 reform bill passed in the wake of the Abramoff scandals—but Monday night showed that the system can easily be gamed.
For example, only about a half-mile from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, a collection of big transportation companies threw a party for transportation “leaders” in Congress. Actually, to be technically accurate, a front group called GOP Convention Strategies sponsored the party—and that’s how everyone involved avoided violating ethics rules. Since GOP Convention Strategies is not a registered lobbyist, it was free to throw a party for whomever it wanted. But it was crystal clear to everyone involved who was paying for the party, and what the goal was.
For $20,000, a corporation could “sponsor” the GOP Convention Strategies event, which would get it prominent placement on all advertising and marketing for the party, as well as twenty-five tickets to the party and a chance to address the crowd personally. This presented any interested transportation company (and its lobbyists) the opportunity to meet and glad-hand key lawmakers from the House and Senate—the exact same thing the 2007 law was trying to outlaw. “In reality, lobbyists are behind this party, but the ethics rules are too porous to recognize the reality,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen.
Outside the event, which was held at Stump’s Supper Club in the Channelside district, there was a prominent sign that said “THANK YOU” above the logos of many major transportation companies, including BNSF Railways, Canadian National Railway, Norfolk Southern, Expedia and several others. (No advertising for GOP Convention Strategies, though).
I spotted Representative John Mica, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, holding court on the patio before the event began. His committee passed out a massive transportation bill this year that was repeatedly slammed as a massive giveaway to special interests. (“This is an earmark for a handful of wealthy people who own these companies. This is a windfall,” a transportation union official told the Huffington Post.) Among many heinous provisions, his committee’s version stripped rail-industry workers of federal minimum wage and overtime protections. Rail companies—the very ones sponsoring this party—often pay workers only the minimum wage, and many employees are forced to work long hours during long-distance hauls.
Senator Jim Inhofe, the ranking member and potential future chair of the Senate Public Works Committee and a key figure in getting that transportation bill through the Senate, was also there. I caught him coming out of the party after about ninety minutes inside, and he amiably said he had a “great” time. I asked who was throwing the party, and he responded “it’s a transportation thing. Transportation industry.” I asked if he spoke with any lobbyists, and Inhofe said “it’s funny, I don’t remember meeting many,” before his staff shooed me away. (And called me a “punk” for good measure).
This is hardly the only party of this nature in Tampa Bay this week. The calendar is full of them, each carefully calibrated to avoid violating ethics rules—the storm may stop the speeches, but won’t stop the all-important cash from flowing.