Convention-goers aren't going to let a little ethics law prevent them from having awesome parties.

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Aug. 26 2008 10:50 AM

Dems Just Wanna Have Fun

Convention-goers aren't going to let a little ethics law prevent them from having awesome parties.

When the Distilled Spirits Council threw its blowout bash Monday in downtown Denver, lobbyists from places like Daimler, Amgen, and Lockheed Martin mingled with politicians. Never mind that Congress passed a law in 2007 cutting back on comingling. The distillers found a loophole: By distributing literature on underage drinking, the party qualified as "educational" and was therefore legit.

That's just one way party-throwers are keeping this year's shindigs within bounds. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, passed by Democrats when they first took over Congress, prohibits lobbyists from paying for gifts to members, including meals and music. But the legislation has more loopholes than a Scottish fortress. Herewith, a quick rundown of ways the Democrats—with assists from the House and Senate ethics committees (see their narrow interpretations of the law here and here [PDFs])—are still managing to have fun.

Spread the love. You're not allowed to throw a party in honor of a single House member. But if it's for multiple members, that's cool. That could be why AT&T threw a party Sunday night for all 47 Blue Dog Democrats instead of just one. It also explains the Visa and US Bank party for the freshman class of House members. (That's House only, mind you. The Senate still bans members from attending honorary corporate-sponsored parties.)

Throw a blowout. Don't host some dinky little gathering. Make it a rager. That way, you're protected by the "widely attended" rule, which says lawmakers can attend a corporate-sponsored party as long as 25 nonlawmakers are also attending. You'd think they'd be eager to admit nonlawmakers like me. You'd be wrong.

Stick a toothpick in everything. Ethics rules allow food of "nominal" value that's not part of a meal. So the more "reception"-y your party, the better. A hamburger in a bun is a meal. A hamburger with a toothpick in it—that's a "slider." In theory, this prohibits anything larger than "finger food." Raw oysters can support toothpicks, for example, but oyster pasta can't. Good rule of thumb: If you can serve it on a stick, do.

Carbo-load. Protein equals meal. Meal equals bad. So if you're serving breakfast, stick with bagels and croissants instead of eggs and bacon. Your lawyers—and your arteries—will thank you.

Keep the music in the background. The new rules ban free music events for lawmakers. But if it the music is in the background, like a reception, play ball. Some groups are fudging it. At the RNC, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council is hosting a party featuring the '80s hair band Styx—hardly background music. Attendees therefore have the option of paying $20 if they're feeling guilty about enjoying "Mr. Roboto."

Ditch the furniture. To qualify as a "reception," a party must force attendees to stand instead of sit. Theoretically, lobbyists and politicians can't hobnob as efficiently while standing up, not unlike the "three feet on the floor" rule at New England boarding schools.

Adopt a cause. Many ethics rules vanish if the event is for a charitable purpose. So if lawmakers were feeling skittish about attending a poker tournament held by the Poker Players Alliance, never fear—all proceeds go to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Lawmakers can also attend the Recording Industry Association of America's Kanye West concert because they're teaming up with the One Campaign to pass out literature on AIDS and poverty.

Keep goodies cheap. Under the old rules, parties could distribute gifts and trinkets worth up to $50. Now that's been reduced to $10. So this year, the cigars in the gift bags provided by the Rocky Patel Premium Cigar Company are crappier than in the past. Nor is it a coincidence that data-transaction company First Data is passing out refreshment vouchers worth "up to $10."

Ethics reformers insist the new rules are making a difference. They have also inspired transparency groups like the Sunlight Foundation to keep tabs on which companies are feting whom. (See the group's complete party list here.) But as with any regulatory regime, from NASCAR to music downloading, new rules spawn creativity as much as they reduce violations. The rules also make this year's parties more exclusive than ever, as organizers make sure no uninvited attendees inadvertently violate the code. (At least that's the excuse.) And they prove, once again, that there ain't no party like the lobbyist party, because the lobbyist party don't stop.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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