CLEVELAND — Even for veteran rocker Rick Springfield, whose chart toppers date to Ronald Reagan’s first term, Tuesday night’s crowd across the Cuyahoga River from the Republican National Convention must’ve seemed decidedly unconventional.
Clusters of young men in standard-issue delegate garb — blue blazers, pleated khakis — milled about. Women shimmied to “Jessie’s Girl” in heels and skirt suits, convention credentials swinging from lanyards around necks.
The concert Tuesday night was “a tribute to the House Republican Whip Team” and was to benefit charity, even though there was no admission fee. So who picked up the tab? Sponsors. Lots of them, virtually all with business before Congress. How much money was going to which charity wasn’t foremost on anyone’s mind.
The show was really a thinly veiled schmooze-fest, where powerful members of Congress and their staffers drank free beer, listened to live music and ate free bratwurst while rubbing elbows with corporate lobbyists, all sanctioned by congressional ethics rules.
During the convention, dozens of organizations have sponsored such events, all with an interest in gaining access to lawmakers and political power brokers.
The events are almost all carefully crafted to fit into exemptions in congressional gift and ethics rules that allow members of Congress to attend, say, charitable fundraisers, or “widely attended events.” Even the honoree wording is particular. Honoring a delegation is allowed, but honoring a specific member, such as, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan, is against the rules.
“These exemptions very quickly become major loopholes to allow lobbyists and others to put on events for officeholders and allow officeholders to go to them for free,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.