12/09/2010 03:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Interest Groups Celebrate With Congress

On Wednesday, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) is putting on an enticing holiday party for members of Congress. The invitation calls it a celebration with wine and spirits, and it's at Wolfgang Puck's upscale restaurant The Source, down the street from the Capitol on the ground floor of the sleek Newseum building.

And as Congress is considering tougher food safety laws which affect farms, the American Farm Bureau has invited every member of Congress, some executive branch officials and many others to its "Taste of the States" event Tuesday for a stand up buffet, featuring food sent by each state's farm bureau.

These are just two of the many invitation-only Congressional holiday parties populating inboxes of Capitol offices this holiday season. And the groups doing the inviting -- lobby shops, trade associations and think tanks -- are trying to cross the 't' and dot the 'i' in ethics.

"We don't provide forks and knives," the Farm's Bureau's director of congressional relations CJ Karney said. Even the beef barbeques donated by some member states have to be hand-eaten, he added.

Many groups, including WSWA, even note on the invitation that the event "qualifies under the reception exemption." WSWA is likely referring to the so-called "toothpick rule," where, at receptions members of Congress may accept food as long as it's not a meal (bagels and cocktails are okay; steaks are not).

Ethics laws have become tricky since a gift ban to members of Congress was passed by Congress in 2007 under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA). Although the rules come with 26 exemptions, most of which are available to lobbyists, they are much more stringent than they were, according to political law guru Brett Kappel.

"The gift ban was expanded exponentially to the groups the employ lobbyists and retain outside lobbyists. That's the most significant change from HLOGA," Kappel said.

The Farm Bureau has been careful with political appointees too, since Obama instituted a lobbyist gift ban for those officials. The Bureau prepares receipts for these officials stating the value of the reception.

Depending on the holiday party, it may not be easy to sneak in. Tonight's Congressional reception at the offices of the influential Chamber of Commerce is booked, according to an automated email message. And almost 200 people have already responded "yes" to the holiday reception put on by lobbying firm Dow Lohnes Government Strategies Wednesday at Sonoma, a swanky downtown establishment, next week, according to firm administrator Laurel Starkey.

Though it is unclear who has been invited to these shindigs, in the case of Dow Lohnes, plenty of executives from energy and telecommunications firms along with members of Congress and their staff working on such topics were likely on the list. The firm's leadership is made up of past House Energy and Commerce staffers Stephen Sayle and Rick Kessler, and former National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) deputy chief counsel Kenneth Salomon.

Kessler is a former chief of staff to House Energy panel chair emeritus John Dingell, D-Mich., and has hosted fundraisers for him, according to Party Time's invitations. This year, on behalf of the Electric Power Supply Association, the former Democratic aide lobbied his fomer boss's chief of staff on carbon sequestration loan programs and a long trail of energy legislation, according to the firm's disclosures. He is an energy wonk when it comes to carbon-capture technology, which many utilities look to K Street to promote. Dingell was a co-sponsor of the Carbon Capture and Storage Early Deployment Act.

Meanwhile, on the same night as the Dow Lohnes party, nuclear power interest group the Nuclear Energy Institute is putting on a Congressional reception across the street from the Capitol at the Congressional staple Charlie Palmer Steak.

A couple of telecom groups are also joining the party. The National Association of Broadcasters will have an event at its Dupont Circle offices on Thursday and the Telecommunication Industry Association is having a party at Occidental Grill downtown Tuesday.

To see what other groups are putting on festive meet and greets, search for "holiday" under "Entertainment Type" at the top of the page.

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