At 2008 Political Conventions, Industry Eyes Low (or No) Profile

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- For financial services lobbyists the presidential nominating conventions are like the championship of their sport, but this year is already shaping up as an exception to that rule.

Financial services organizations are up against stricter ethics standards, weakened financial footing, and harsh rhetoric from both candidates that casts lobbyists, and much of the industry, in a negative light. The result is that lobbyists and even congressional staff are taking a cautious approach to the convention revelry and keeping a lower profile.

Some have opted to bow out altogether. For the first time in decades the American Bankers Association is not attending either convention.

"We evaluate all of the aspects around opportunities like this," said Floyd Stoner, the ABA's head lobbyist. "Circumstances have changed and certainly these are challenging economic times for financial institutions, and we decided not to go."

Many individual bank lobbyists interviewed for this article - for whom attending the conventions would ordinarily be a no-brainer - said they are still debating whether it is worth attending this year's events, and some are waiting to see what others are doing.

"I'm in limbo on the conventions," said a lobbyist for a major financial services organization. "There's so much lack of clarity on guidance on what is or isn't permissible, on what would constitute a gift or a widely attended event, that I think that everybody is kind of standing off and watching, and I know a lot of people who may not even go to the conventions."

Others are scaling back. Erick Gustafson, the senior vice president for legislative and political affairs at the Mortgage Bankers Association, said the group is still weighing how best to present itself.

"We're going to have a presence that is sort of responsibly sized and relative to the health of the industry," Mr. Gustafson said. "The legislative environment and the environment around the industry have changed, so we need to assess what we need to do to be well represented in front of policymakers. It's not the same today as it was in 2000 or 2004, so there were a number of things we did four years ago that we may or may not do today."

The rules of the game have changed since the last conventions, in Boston and New York in 2004. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which went into effect in January, prohibits lobbyists, and entities that employ or retain them from holding events honoring specific members of Congress during the conventions. The rule change means that events to honor the chairman of a key committee, which used to be commonplace, are no longer allowed.

At the last presidential conventions, industry groups footed the bill for fetes honoring former Senate and House banking chairmen - Sen. Richard Shelby at Central Park's Boathouse and Rep. Michael Oxley at the Rainbow Room overlooking Rockefeller Center. In Boston, industry groups sponsored a brunch for the House Financial Services Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Barney Frank, and a party overlooking Boston Harbor for fellow committee member Rep. Paul Kanjorski. The band Little Feat put on a late-night performance at Faneuil Hall for Senate Banking Committee member Tom Carper of Delaware.

Such gatherings are likely a thing of the past, according to ethics lawyers.

"There will be fewer events at this particular convention than there were at previous conventions, but I think that's because people are being overly careful," said Brett Kappel, a lawyer who specializes in lobbying and ethics law at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP.

"I've been trying to calm clients down a little bit," Mr. Kappel said. "Yes, there are criminal penalties, but the enforcement risk is extremely low. As long as you make a good-faith effort to comply with the rules, the FBI is not going to come kicking in your door because you sent an invitation to someone who shouldn't have gotten one. …