The New Etiquette of Lobbying

Emily Post, meet Jack Abramoff.

The standards of decorum for courtship and lobbying have moved in opposite directions. In the Victorian era, a gentleman seeking a lady’s affection asked her to dance, took her to the refreshment room, and then returned her to her chaperone. A 19th-century lobbyist offered lawmakers cash for votes and threw liquor-soaked parties where he introduced his targets to women of loose morals. According to a Senate report, Samuel Colt’s lobbyist sought favorable government action by adopting the rule: “To reach the heart or get the vote, the surest way is down the throat.”

These days, a suitor can exchange steamy Web videos with a stranger 12 time zones away, but the commerce between lobbyist and lawmaker is constricted (on paper, at least): Lobbyists must register their names, limit their gifts, and, if they’ve worked on the Hill, wait for a year until they can lobby their former offices or committees.

But now Jack Abramoff has happened and the rules are going to get tighter. Abramoff was a throwback to old-time lobbying. He spread his largesse in the manner of his 19th-century predecessors, dishing out cash, swish junkets, and pricey food and booze. Now everyone in Washington is trying to get clean: Members of Congress are returning donations, pledging reform, and competing to denounce the former lobbyist. But what are the new etiquette rules after Jack the Gifter? Will there be no more golf trips? No more meals? Will lobbyists have to wait longer between the check and “the ask”? Will they change from their flashy pinstripes to a more sober herringbone?

The lobbying brotherhood is waiting anxiously for answers. Some are paying attention to the existing rules for the first time. One lobbyist I talked to had a shocked colleague call him to say he’d just studied the rules about giving and thought his firm might have broken them. He’s not alone. Another, who, like a lot of his colleagues, would also prefer to be anonymous until this Abramoff business blows over, says, “I was looking at the paper and thinking about Abramoff’s quid pro quos. That’s a gray area we all operate in. I never make an explicit ask with a check in hand, but where is that line? I don’t know, but it has moved.”

Lawmakers themselves are even more flustered and are behaving in ways utterly inconsistent with their beliefs. In the rush to return Abramoff money they are setting a standard they don’t believe in. Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt’s spokesman said the Missouri congressman returned Abramoff’s money because it “may not have been given in the spirit in which it was received.” What spirit did he think moved Abramoff? The MacArthur Foundation spirit? Christmas spirit? School spirit? Political money is given with strings attached. Blunt knows how the game works: That’s why he’s acting majority leader. Applying the new hurry-up-and-get-rid-of-it Blunt standard would mean returning all lobbying money. Blunt, who is running to be permanent majority leader, is not proposing that.

Abramoff wrote his personal checks to Republicans. GOP stalwarts, anxious to make the scandal a bipartisan one, have pointed out that Democrats may not have received money from Abramoff, but they received money from his clients. It’s true, but those clients don’t appear to have done anything wrong. All they did was hire Abramoff in the hopes that he would be a successful lobbyist: a person who convinces lawmakers to give his clients favorable treatment. By trying to pull in Democrats who merely received political money, GOP partisans indict the whole system of political giving, which in calmer times is not a campaign finance position normally associated with the Republican Party.

After the confusing face-saving dies down, the lobbyists I talked to are confident that not much will change in Washington for the honest ones in their trade. (The species does exist.) The foreign junkets will probably disappear and so will fancy lunches (lobbyists bearing deli sandwiches—what a delightful prospect!). But lawmakers will have to suffer considerably more public damage before they’ll vote for a bill that sharply limits their campaign donations. New etiquette doesn’t mean celibacy.

The most important change is likely to be atmospheric rather than substantive. Lobbyists will have to be much more aware of each individual member’s sensitivity to how quickly the request for action (the ask) comes after the check has cleared. They also predict that lawmakers will require lobbyists to have squeaky clean backgrounds. “When I talk to my congressional friends they’re seeing each lobbyist contact through a new prism,” says Juleanna Glover Weiss, a lobbyist for the Ashcroft Group. “Is this person of sterling reputation? Can I conceive in the future that he could act in some way that could embarrass my boss? There is a whole new baseline of judgment.”

Lobbyists wonder if reforms could make their life easier, too. With influence peddling, like courtship, it can be hard to figure out who is zooming whom. If a lobbyist drops a business card off at a congressional office to introduce himself, he knows he will get a call from the member’s fundraising PAC. Even though the lobbyist may be new to the congressional office, the member and his staff know someday he’ll come calling with a request. They want the money upfront. “We would be happy to stop having to give money every time they call,” says one Washington lobbyist.

Lawmakers also know that when you squeeze a corporate lobbyist you also squeeze his friends. If Smitty the lobbyist throws a fund-raiser for a congressman on behalf of his corporation, Smitty will send invitations to all the political consultants, lawyers, and others in town on retainer to the company for which Smitty is lobbying. Sure, the lawyer or consultant could blow off the fund-raiser and not write the check, but Smitty will let the corporation know and maybe that skinflint won’t get his retainer next time around. The rule is simple: Everyone must dance.

In this way, the new etiquette will be very similar to the old, with one small change. Everyone will still have to dance, but they’ll try harder to keep their groping hands to themselves.