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With lobbyists hunkering down in the trenches as Congress moves swiftly to pass ethics reform that’s expected to cut down on the back-slapping and steak dinners about K Street, times might seem grim for a group of well-connected lobbyists who are better known for carting off staffers and members of Congress to faraway locales such as Rome and Budapest. Never mind. For the Ripon Society, it’s business as usual. The society, a nonprofit band of moderate Republicans, and its old spinoff nonprofit, the Ripon Educational Fund, which came under fire last year when reports surfaced of its lavish trips for congressional members, is pressing ahead with its congressional minglings, which include policy breakfasts and dinners. The new climate, such as it is, seems to be for the other guys. “I scanned it [the new lobby rules], and I don’t think it affects our trips,” says George McNeill, the chief administrative officer for the Ripon Society. He adds that the board is meeting at the end of February to discuss the changes. The House changed its rules the first week of January to prevent members of Congress from “knowingly” accepting a gift from a registered lobbyist. Travel junkets are allowed but “if such a trip is in any part planned, organized, requested, or arranged by a registered lobbyist or agent of a foreign principal,” it is prohibited. The Senate is currently engaged in a mix of both changing the Senate rules and offering up legislative remedies, says Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit organization that deals with government ethics. The House’s legislative response, a rewrite of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, will be handled by the House Judiciary Committee in February. There are exemptions in the House rules for nonprofit organizations and universities. The Senate seems to be looking at similar exemptions, but its bill currently contains provisions that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts, meals, and travel from foundations and associations that employ lobbyists to work on their behalf. That means the Ripon Society will soon have company. Lobbyists say the reforms will likely pave the way for an increase in nonprofits or educational think tanks, allowing lawmakers and members easy access to mix and mingle. “What’s going to stop telephone companies, all the different utility companies, from doing their own thing? Or Shell [Oil Co.] from setting up their own educational fund showing where they are drilling and how they are drilling safely?” says Ron Phillips, a lobbyist at mCapitol Management. Ripon’s former president, Bill Frenzel, is in agreement. “There are enough holes in what I have seen in the rules so that, certainly, nonprofits can be formed,” says Frenzel, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota. “The question, of course, is how much members will be afraid of going to such meetings and what’s at the meeting.” One sector where nonprofits might come in handy is the sprawling technology industry. Telecom lobbyists rely heavily on taking staffers and congressional members on trips to show them the latest and greatest innovations their clients are creating, and this part of their business, they say, is threatened by the House travel ban, which is set to go into effect March 1. “Over the course of the last 15 years, members and staffers have enjoyed the trips to see the backbone of the Internet or a new product because the technology is cool,” says Jeffrey Peck, a lobbyist at Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart. “I don’t think it’s an overwhelming part of one’s business, but when you can show how it really works, it’s pretty educational. It’s unfortunate if that stuff gets cut back, with respect to travel [bans].” So far, nonprofits have managed to stay clear of the ethics-reform debate — that is, those who don’t have lobbyists on staff. And they hope to keep it that way — especially ones like the American Israel Education Foundation, which work under larger lobbying groups. AIEF is the nonprofit arm of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby with a reputation of being one of the strongest lobbies in shaping U.S. Middle East policy. A spokesman says the nonprofit will be able to continue its educational trips for lawmakers. The spokesman notes that AIEF offers travel — unlike its larger lobbying umbrella, AIPAC — and does not employ lobbyists. And many well-established associations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, already have nonprofit educational arms that do their own lobbying. Phyllis Eisen, vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit wing of NAM, says her institute raises money for policy analysis and education. Eisen says her institute is not engaged in any lobbying at all, though they educate a range of policy-makers, along with business and educational institutions. “NAM supports us, but we are not partners with them,” Eisen says. “We are their institute.” NAM President John Engler is a trustee with the institute, which reported $3.5 million in total revenue according to its 2005 Form 990, which nonprofits are required to file with the Internal Revenue Service. Some ethics experts remain skeptical about whether the change in House rules will transform the way nonprofits do business in Washington. “Lobbyists and lawyers are forever creative in figuring out ways around rules,” says Tom Susman, a partner at Ropes & Gray. Last year, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group, published a manifesto on the Ripon Society noting that federal lawmakers reported receiving more than $1 million in free travel from the Ripon Society and the Ripon Educational Fund. Under the new House rules, Ripon will be able to keep doing that, ethics experts say. But Ripon’s McNeill says that, at least for now, the society does not have any trips planned. And some other nonprofit organizations, such as the Jefferson Island Club, are, like Ripon, continuing with their congressional minglings. The club, a nonpartisan group funded by member and corporate sponsors such as Altria Group Inc. and BellSouth Corp., hosts regular cocktail events on the Hill. It is still planning one for President George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech in a few weeks.
Reporter Osita Iroegbu contributed to this article. Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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