Outside the Beta nightclub in Denver near midnight on Aug. 25, a three-foot placard declared one entrance for "Elected Officials" only. Inside, to the pulsing beat of the Black Eyed Peas' My Humps, Democratic National Convention attendees could join the lawmakers and help themselves to free cigars and hors d'oeuvres, along with whiskeys offered by the Distilled Spirits Council.
Welcome to the other convention. Corporate parties were some of the hottest tickets in the Mile High City during the Democratic gathering—and will be again in St. Paul and Minneapolis on Aug. 30, when Republicans start to arrive ahead of their own deliberations.
All this is somewhat surprising given that the rules of engagement between lawmakers and corporate lobbyists were supposed to get tougher after passage last year of a congressional ethics bill that singled out such parties.
But critics say House and Senate interpretations have weakened the restrictions considerably, doing little more than tightening gift rules, replacing full meals with finger food, and barring parties honoring individual lawmakers. Fetes for several lawmakers, and parties before and after the conventions, can still pass muster. "The way in which the House and Senate interpreted these rules in many respects essentially gutted them," says Kenneth J. Kies with Federal Policy Group, a Washington lobbying firm.
AT&T (T) wooed California delegates with canapés and open bar. Guests could take a small bag, emblazoned with AT&T's logo, that contained a plush toy Denver steer and a visored cap. A sign cautioned that ethics rules might prohibit some lawmakers from taking a goodie bag, but no one seemed to be watching.
Cerner (CERN), a Kansas City (Mo.) maker of medical record software with a stake in health-care proposals that seek to save money through technology, also got its message out. Cerner President Earl H. "Trace" Devanny III joined other health-care executives and policymakers in a panel discussion on Aug. 25, moderated by former Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a key Obama adviser on health care. Cerner later hosted an outdoor "VIP reception" with other health-care IT companies, inviting senior staff of Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). These are "definitely those people we consider to be the decision-makers when it comes to reform in health care," says Maggie Nelson, manager of Cerner's federal lobbying operation.