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New ethics rule leads to Scrooge-like parties

Email|Print| Text size + By Charles Babington
Associated Press / December 16, 2007

WASHINGTON - Hold the roast beef, pass the cocktail wieners on toothpicks. Eat off paper plates (napkins are even better), and don't dare sit down.

Those are the guidelines at dozens of holiday receptions around Capitol Hill this year, as lobbyists, lawmakers, and their aides accommodate a new ethics law banning gifts.

For some time, various interest groups have feted Congress members and staffers with lunches, dinners, receptions, and other treats that, supposedly, cost no more than $50 per person. After a string of lobbying scandals, however, lawmakers passed a law allowing no gifts to members or staffers from lobbyists or groups that employ lobbyists.

Of course in Washington, every paragraph is parsed to a fare-thee-well, so lawyers spent weeks deciding what the "no" in "no gifts" means. Their conclusion: Food or refreshments "of a nominal value" are OK, but meals - even a measly box lunch - are not.

To help guide nervous lawmakers and their aides, the House ethics committee wrote an advisory memo quickly dubbed the toothpick rule. Small eats "such as hors d'oeuvres, appetizers, and beverages" are allowed, as are "coffee, juice, pastry, or bagels." But they must not be part of a meal.

Most people hosting and attending Capitol Hill receptions apparently have agreed that, to stay out of trouble, imbibing guests should neither sit down nor use silverware or plates other than flimsy paper or plastic.

"It's just the goofiest thing," said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce and a veteran of many Washington receptions. With some reporters cruising receptions in search of violators, he said, many lawmakers may decide a little finger food and chitchat are not worth the trouble.

"Why would you go through this?" Josten said.

But others have embraced the new rules, saying holiday receptions are still popular, just less extravagant.

"We scaled it back so we didn't have things like sandwiches and a full turkey," Craig Holman, spokesman for the watchdog group Public Citizen, said of the group's annual party, held earlier this week. Public Citizen supports the new law, but it still causes confusion, Holman said.

The ethics committee allows heavier meals at "widely attended events" sponsored by special interests, but only if the event has a clear business-related purpose. That doesn't include "holiday parties," Holman said.

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