It used to be that if you were an attorney working for a company that does a little political lobbying, and you had an old friend working on the Hill whose ear you could bend, you might invite him or her to lunch and pick up the tab. Naturally, you'd expense the cost.
Nowadays, however, buying lunch--even for a close friend working in Congress--might run afoul of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, which President George Bush signed into law in September. In fact it might even land you in jail.
But don't fault Bush for the new law. The person who deserves the blame is Jack Abramoff, who received a five-year, 10-month sentence in March 2006 after pleading guilty to fraud charges related to lobbying and fundraising.
"Fundraising and lobbying abuses have been in the news for the past number of years, but the Abramoff scandal is what really put them into the public consciousness," says Mark Heilbrun, a partner in Jenner & Block's Washington, D.C. office.
Abramoff's transgression led Congress to tighten up its own rules on members accepting gifts and also provoked legislation that prohibits offering and giving gifts to members of Congress.
"The new law targets not only lobbyists and lobbying firms, but companies and associations who employ them," says William Minor, a partner in DLA Piper's Washington, D.C., office.
No Free Lunch
Previously House and Senate rules governed receipt of gifts and travel by members of Congress and their staffs. But the new Leadership Act prohibits the giving of gifts and travel to members and their staffs.
The scope of the prohibition on gifts is extremely broad--even relatively minor items such as free meals or tickets to entertainment and sporting events are included unless they fall within certain narrow exceptions.
"These rules apply even in the extreme case of a U.S. multinational that has a branch in Oregon where an employee offers to buy a sandwich, a bag of chips and a soda for a staff member at a Congressman's local office," Minor explains. And the "exceptions," such as the one governing "personal friendship," have their pitfalls.
"People need to understand that if you're buying lunch under the exception, you can't expense it anymore," says Mary Streett of Mayer Brown's Washington office. "This will change the way things have been done in Washington."