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Tiniest Fiddle: No Gift Bags For Pols at White House Correspondents Dinner

Who doesn't love a good gift bag? They are one of the best reasons to go to the late-night "after parties" that follow the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, besides chatting up tipsy celebrities and politicians.

But this year -- the dinner is scheduled for this Saturday night -- lots of partygoers will be looking the gift horse in the mouth.

They have no choice. Gift bags are officially taboo for members of Congress and their staffs who, under strict new ethics rules, cannot take even the tiniest item from the swag bags.

And as long as the sponsors of the after parties employ lobbyists, they -- the sponsors -- are banned from giving gift bags to the politicians and congressional aides who, just until last year, loved walking (or staggering as the case may be) home with their goody bags.

Bloomberg News, which for years has hosted the hottest ticket on the after-party circuit, is known for giving big comfy slippers to its weary, late-night revelers, along with latte mugs and other trinkets. And for years, many a big-name guest has been spotted hailing a cab, shoes in hand, puffy slippers on feet.

Let's just say that this year, they'll be going home with the shoes they brought.

Bloomberg, which, like most news organizations, including the Washington Post Co., employs lobbyists, has nixed the gift bag as too risky. (Corporations actually face criminal penalties if they knowingly give gifts of any value to a member of Congress or his or her staff.)

"We love gift bags," says Tammy Haddad, a veteran television producer who is a consultant to Bloomberg (and washingtonpost.com). "There are thousands of people padding around Washington in Bloomberg after-party slippers. But this year we want to abide by the new ethics law."

Capitol File magazine, which is hosting another hot-ticket after party this year at the posh new Newseum building, is still going to give gift bags -- very nice ones, too, thanks to Saks Fifth Avenue -- but not without what seems like a lot of painstaking vetting.

Jayne Sandman, the associated publisher of Capitol File, says the magazine and its corporate after-party sponsors have methodically gone through the RSVP list to see who is allowed a gift bag and who is not. Those who are eligible will get a little ticket, which they can then exchange at the end of the night for a gift bag, while members of Congress and their aides will go home empty-handed.

Too bad for them. The goody bags will include moleskine notebooks, fancy pens and, as Sandman says, "tons of stuff from Saks Fifth Avenue."

Congressional watchdog ethics guru Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 wouldn't comment on whether bagging the gift bag will really make Washington more ethical. He simply said, "As Bob Dylan once wrote, 'The Times They Are A-Changin'.' Although Dylan had some rather larger issues in mind than this particular lifestyle change for members and congressional staff."

The gift bags can always go to the journalists and glitterati (or not so) pouring into Washington this weekend for the annual Hollywood-meets-Wonktown soiree. As our colleague Peter Baker reports, celeb guests who are on tap to appear include Ben Affleck, Harvey Keitel and Tim Daly.

And our colleagues Amy and Roxanne at the Reliable Source report that Pamela Anderson, Donatella Versace and Colin Firth, among others, are expected.

Check back at the Sleuth Thursday to read who won't be there...

By Mary Ann Akers  |  April 23, 2008; 7:18 PM ET
 
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