WASHINGTON — Hide the silverware.
That's what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did for its holiday party last month, hoping to woo members of Congress and their staff members.
In a city where no issue is too small for a big debate, official Washington is grappling with what's become widely known as the toothpick rule. It allows lobbyists to provide free food to members of Congress at receptions, but only if the morsels fit comfortably on a toothpick. That means no pizza or hot dogs.
Lobbyists also are being advised to get rid of eating tables at their events. If you give a politician a fork and spoon and provide him with comfortable surroundings, the reasoning goes, he might be tempted to grab a chair and have a sit-down meal.
This stand-up routine is suddenly getting very serious: Lobbyists who violate the new ethics law, which took effect on Sept. 14, can receive a five-year prison sentence and a $200,000 fine, a quadrupling of the old maximum penalty.
"This new law is the criminalization of lobbying," said Paul Honigberg, an attorney at Blank Rome LLP, a Washington law and government-relations firm.
The suddenly hot toothpick rule even found its way into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton questioning its merits.
During a debate in New Hampshire, Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama cited his work on the 2007 ethics law as evidence that he can produce change and take on Washington's special interests. He called it "the toughest ethics reform legislation since Watergate."
That drew quick criticism from Clinton, who also voted for the law: "If you say that you're going to prevent members of Congress from having lunch with lobbyists ... but they can still have lunch standing up, that's not change."
Honigberg said the toothpick rule has been on the books for years. What's new, he said, is that lobbyists must certify that they're complying with all provisions of the ethics law, including the toothpick rule, and violators now can be punished with criminal, not civil, penalties. That means the Justice Department could knock on your door if you're using forks instead of toothpicks.
"That certainly gets my attention," Honigberg said, predicting that lobbyist-sponsored Super Bowl parties will be scaled down.
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who also voted for the ethics law, said she understands the desire to prohibit members of Congress from accepting free meals. But she said the focus on whether they're standing up or sitting down or using a fork or toothpick to eat is distracting from a larger issue of how ethics laws aren't being properly enforced.
"It's kind of dumb," she said of the toothpick rule.
Honigberg said the toothpick rule has become shorthand for finger foods. While the law allows food of "nominal value" to be provided to members of Congress at receptions, pizza and hot dogs are specifically prohibited, according to the House Ethics Committee. At morning gatherings, lobbyists can provide coffee, juice, pastry or bagels, according to the committee's guidelines.
"Normal hors d'oeuvres are allowed and things that are customarily eaten while standing up, as opposed to things that you would associate with a meal," Honigberg said, adding that he hasn't figured out all the details. "We were joking around here one day, saying, well, what about pigs in a blanket, or what about caviar, which is really not of nominal value?"
Things were very different at this year's Chamber of Commerce holiday bash.
"Basically, there was no silverware. We didn't have one of our feature items, which was duck. And we canceled Santa," said Eric Wohlschlegel, the chamber's executive director of communications.
He said the duck was scrapped because "it's an expensive item, and we wanted to make sure there wasn't even an impression of doing anything too elaborate." The chamber instead served snacks such as cheese, fruit, cookies and pastries. In previous years, Santa Claus posed for pictures with attendees, but chamber officials feared that might be viewed as something of value, which is prohibited under the gift ban. Before, members of Congress could accept gifts worth less than $50.
"Our goal is just to comply with the law and let Congress determine what is appropriate and what is not," Wohlschlegel said.
Despite the ban on hot dogs at receptions, the American Meat Institute intends to serve full-sized hot dogs, corn dogs and sausages, along with all of the traditional fixings, at this summer's National Hot Dog Day on Capitol Hill, said Dave Ray, a spokesman for the group. More than 1,000 Capitol Hill staffers, members of Congress and the media attended the 2007 event.
Ray said National Hot Dog Day is "a widely attended event," not a reception, and as a result it's legal to serve full-sized hot dogs. According to the Ethics Committee, waivers can be granted for "widely attended" events, but only if the individual's attendance is in connection with the performance of his duties.
Honigberg, whose firm is advising other lobbyists in Washington on how to comply with the law, said that if he were in charge of the event, he would suggest serving little wieners on a stick.
"If I was asked what you could do," he said, "I would say don't serve hot dogs."