Imagine the Ghosts of Christmas Past for Washington lobbyists. Forced to take time off from eating lunch and talking on their cell phones to round up gift baskets for congressmen and their staffs. At best, the process was hit or miss. Would the agriculture committee members really be swayed by chocolate U.S. Capitol domes from the dairy industry, or booze from the Distilled Spirits Council? Is it gauche to send a Jewish lawmaker a holiday ham?
Now, lobbyists can leave gift-giving to the experts. This past holiday season, a new company, Gift Strategies Inc., offered influence-peddlers the opportunity to purchase gifts for lawmakers and their staffs with a click of a mouse. According to their website, “Gift Strategies can help maximize the impact of gifting to influential individuals, providing a large selection of quality products tailored to the interests of recipients.”
Gift Strategies delivers such goodies as 10-year-old port, champagne, bath and beauty products, food baskets, and imported chocolates. They even have a special selection of gifts under the heading “staffer stuffers.” The website allows the truly conscientious lobbyist to keep track of which pols he’s given to and how much he’s spent per person. Brendan Hilley, who launched the firm this fall, said that facilitating gifts between K Street and Capitol Hill seemed a natural opportunity. “I saw it as a market” because “Washington, D.C., is the business of politics.”
Hilley’s familiarity with the ways of Washington runs deep: His father, John Hilley, was the Clinton administration’s congressional liaison. Hilley stresses that his business is nonpartisan—he walked the halls of both Republican and Democratic lobby firms and corpo-rate offices to gin up holiday business. (He declined to provide a client list.) Yet his venture is bucking the historic downtrend in the value of gifts.
“Back in the good old days there were always stories about high-ranking staffers receiving fur coats and nice watches. There was a fair amount of lavishness for key folks,” bemoans Peter Jacoby, a lobbyist for AT&T. And Ed Kutler, a former staffer for Newt Gingrich who now works as a lobbyist, says wistfully, “In the old days if you were in a position of responsibility, you were inundated with liquor and food and all kinds of stuff.”
That was supposed to end under the ethics restrictions adopted in 1995, which limited lobbyists to giving each member of Congress or staffer only two gifts a year, valued at no more than $50 each. The curbs initially damped the freebies. Then loopholes developed and things got back to normal, until “normal” was redefined by Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay. How will Hilley’s business do in a once-again scandal-shy Washington?
The politician’s son replies: “I have nothing else to say.”