Monday, January 28, 2008

Lobbyists and lawmakers party in D.C.

From The Times-Picayune
D.C. Mardi Gras puts a mask on ethics codes

Lawmakers, lobbyists celebrate Louisiana traditions together

January 24, 2008
By Bill Walsh

WASHINGTON -- New ethics rules were supposed to have "broken the link" between special interests and Congress, but the changes won't stop lobbyists and lawmakers from donning masks and celebrating together as they have for decades at the Washington Mardi Gras.

The parties, meals and receptions starting today are arguably the most intimate gatherings of businesspeople, politicians and lobbyists left in Washington, where a spate of influence-peddling scandals has put a damper on corporate-sponsored schmoozing.

But Washington Mardi Gras, which is in many ways a throwback to the days when politicians and lobbyists socialized regularly outside the glare of the public spotlight, appears largely immune to the new ethics standards.

"I don't think there will be much difference at all," said Ted Jones, a recently retired lobbyist who, as a longtime organizer of the three-day celebration, bears the title of senior lieutenant in the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians.

Jones says the Mardi Gras has survived periodic attempts to clamp down on congressional ethics because it is less business than pleasure. Each year, about 2,000 Louisianians trek to the nation's capital and turn the Washington Hilton into a bustling party headquarters. The bar at the hotel is so thick with Louisiana politicos, especially in an election year, that it has been dubbed the state's 65th parish.

"For most of these people, it's their one trip to Washington a year," said former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux, a one-time captain of the Mystick Krewe. Breaux retired from the Senate in 2005 to become a lobbyist and now carries the title of senior lieutenant emeritus.

Jones puts it this way: "There is no big deal about this. It's just like you'd invite people to your house for a party and you bring your own bottle."

For the first night anyway, the bottles -- and food and music -- are free. They are paid for by the corporations, labor unions and lobbying firms sponsoring the "Louisiana Alive!" party that kicks off the Mardi Gras.

Be there or be square

The event is one of the most sought-after tickets in any season in Washington. Dixieland and zydeco bands are flown up from Louisiana along with a seemingly endless supply of fresh shrimp and gumbo. The bars are open. Contortionists in spandex outfits entertain on pedestals throughout the ballroom, and members of Louisiana's congressional delegation mix freely with the other guests. One year, Breaux was carried into the party in a coffin held aloft by revelers...

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