Snacks? Sure. Dinner? No! U.S. House and Senate ethics codes make some food events off-limits.
When organizers for a party to be held during the Republican National Convention decided they wanted to serve quesadillas, they did what many convention-party menu planners are doing these days:
They called their lawyer.
The legal advice: Quesadillas would be permissible -- if they were filled only with cheese. So says Ryan Kelly, who works for Take08Events, which is helping to set up the party for what he describes as an "advocacy organization."
So why is cheese OK but chicken or beef problematic? If there was meat on the quesadillas, they might constitute a meal, said Kelly, and under Senate and House ethics rules, members of Congress are forbidden from accepting free meals at many events.
As the Twin Cities gears up for four days of nonstop partying during the Sept. 1-4 convention, lawyers are working overtime to make sure that politicians will be able to sidle up to a multitude of bars without being put behind them.
While the legal complexities of finger food for federal lawmakers have been around for years, new ethics rules for party conventions were passed by the House and Senate in 2007 as part of a much larger ethics reforms package. The convention rules have created a kerfuffle for lobbyists.
"There is a great deal of confusion about what they can do," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "Some lobbying firms have decided not to go to either of the conventions."
Special memos on the conventions have been issued recently by the House and Senate ethics committees.
A new party restriction
One staple of past GOP and Democratic conventions was expensive parties put on by lobbying entities that honored individual members of Congress.
The events were criticized by consumer advocates who saw them as a way for corporations to try to buy influence.
The congressional ethics rules adopted in 2007 banned such parties honoring individual members of Congress. But House officials have issued guidelines permitting lobbyists to honor a House delegation or caucus, which has watchdog groups fuming.
"The guideline is absurd," said Fred Werthheimer, president of Democracy 21, a reform group. "It is totally contrary to the ethics rule."
Some lobbyists are shying away from any receptions.
The National Beer Wholesalers Association was among the most active sponsors of gatherings honoring members of Congress at the 2004 Republican convention in New York. But the association is aware of the new ethics rules, and it appears it won't be sponsoring any convention parties. "While we have been active at political conventions in the past, we don't have any plans at this point for the upcoming convention," said Jill Talley, the group's spokeswoman.
A rule that was in place before 2007 prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from accepting meals at invitation-only receptions; they are allowed to eat only food of "nominal value."
However, Congress members can eat free meals at "widely attended events," defined as invitation-only events with 25 or more non-congressional attendees where the event has some connection to the officials' duties.
Still, some convention parties, like AgNite, an after-hours bash, are going to serve only finger food, despite a crowd of 3,000 to 5,000. The sponsor, the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, wants to avoid even a hint of a violation.
Wieners vs. wienies
"Heavy hors d'oeuvres qualify as a meal," said Cleta Mitchell, a Washington lawyer. "If you are having a reception, it has to be light appetizers, no forks, just toothpicks."
A wiener, she said, would be prohibited, even on a toothpick. However, a little wienie on a toothpick is fine.
She blames the restrictions on a "pesky little amendment," adding, "I think this is preposterous, frankly, because I don't think it is the genesis of the problem. The people who brought us this whole regulatory regime intend to interrupt the normal social interaction between and among those who do business together."
But reform proponents defend finger food limits. "It might sound a little ridiculous, but the intent was to stop the one-on-one sit-down dinners between a lobbyist and lawmakers which was the trade of currency of Jack Abramoff, who is now in prison for bribing members of Congress," Holman said.
State legislators who are convention delegates must also make sure that they're in compliance with their state laws if they show up at a party held by a lobbying group registered in their state.
"In general, under Minnesota law, legislators and constitutional officers cannot take gifts from registered lobbyists," said David Schultz, a professor of public administration at Hamline University.
Politicians also must make sure they do not run afoul of entertainment prohibitions.
For example, Styx, the rock group, will play at AgNite's Sept. 2 reception in Minneapolis. If you are a member of Congress, you might want to stick to the booze and food and skip the free concert or you could be hauled up on an ethics charge. (Casual dinner music is said to be OK.)
At the entrance to the concert room, the Agri-Council will post a notice saying that if you're an official subject to gift laws, you should pay to attend the concert. The charge will be fair-market value, which might be in the range of $20 to $40. "We have been working with our [legal] counsel at Faegre & Benson," said Leslie Shuler, the Agri-Council spokesperson.
No quesadillas, after all
Back to an ingestion question: Would eating lots of finger food turn it into a meal, becoming a violation?
"It is basically on the honor system," Schultz said. "The really bigger issue is not so much whether or not a congressman is going to stuff his face with shrimp on a toothpick." Such receptions, he said, are "an incredibly good opportunity for lobbyists and special interests to really mingle with members of Congress and have serious face time with them."
As for the party planners' quesadilla question: Rather than take any chances, event organizers are scratching the quesadillas and adding calamari on a stick, though the full menu has yet to be finalized.
"When we find out ... we will have the client's legal counsel review it to make sure everything passes muster," said Kelly of Take08Events.
Staff researcher Roberta Hovde contributed to this report. Randy furst • 612-673-7382