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Cash Register Conventions


Another humid August, a long time ago, and I was working in my father’s small town drugstore, the last summer before my first year of high school.

Today, cash registers are as computerized as ATM’s and tell you everything instantly, from the change owed and the status of inventory to the date, time and wind chill factor in Upper Volta.

Back then, they were electrically powered at least, but you still had to do a lot of the calculating in your head, which is why my dad tended to keep his not-so-mathematically-inclined son in the back of the store, away from the receipts. With my nimble fingers on the register keys, I was capable of trying to charge you $1,398.06 for a pack of Camels.

(I wasn’t allowed to sell condoms or razor blades either, but that wasn’t so much because of my inept and callow youth. They carried a sales commission and it was thought unseemly for the boss’ son to traffic in something from which the other employees could receive a cash bonus.)

That summer, New York State and my hometown each instituted a sales tax, a development for which our cash registers were unsuited – they couldn’t calculate percentages. So we had a chart, which we’d consult after ringing up a sale, at which point we’d add on the pennies and nickels of tax and throw them, separately, into shoeboxes.

Further jumbling this awkward system was the list of what was or was not taxable, some of which seemed to have been determined by rounds of darts in Albany, the state capital. Medicine was not taxable. That made sense. Chewing gum was taxable, unless it was Beeman’s Gum, which was invented by a doctor and contained pepsin – medicinally good for the digestion, so not taxed. Insulin wasn’t taxed either, but the syringes to administer it, were.

So, in that spirit of trivial complexity and governmental randomness, as the Democratic and Republican conventions begin in Denver and St. Paul, I give you the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

The law, passed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal and the imprisonment of House members Bob Ney and Duke Cunningham (Ney was released just this past Monday), has much to recommend it, outlawing gifts from lobbyists for members of Congress and their staffs. That includes the extravagant parties that trade associations, law firms, advocacy organizations, unions and other lobby groups used to throw at the conventions for the most influential, individual senators and representatives.

At the 2004 Republican National Convention here in New York City, for example, among hundreds of parties, the American Gas Association sponsored nine gala events, which included a “Wildcatter’s Ball” for Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, then chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Pepsico gave Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur, which then cost $60,000 just to rent for the night. House Speaker Dennis Hastert got a wingding at Tavern on the Green, bought and paid for by General Motors.

So change is good. The problem is that many of the new law’s rules are so arcane and convoluted it would take a team of forensic accountants and Talmudic scholars to properly interpret them. The “toothpick rule,” for example, bans Congress members and their aides from accepting a free meal, but they can snarf up as many free hors d’oeuvres as they like – as long as they’re standing up and not sitting down. No forks, no chairs and you may be within the law.

Unless. The St. Paul Pioneer Press reported one party planner for the Republican convention was told that under the law quesadillas with cheese qualified as legal finger food but including beef or chicken would make them an illicit meal. According to Tuesday’s The New York Times,

“Depending on the circumstances, breakfasts are limited to bagels, rolls and croissants, while proteins like eggs are prohibited. What is more, rules differ for events that are deemed to be ‘widely attended’ — something that has more than 25 diverse attendees but is not a ballgame or a concert…

“Adding to the complexity, state ethics rules also come into play. If a corporation or trade association has an event where state office holders are invited, the ethics rules of each of their states must be followed.”

Whew. All hellishly good-intentioned, perhaps, but while those so inclined are distracted by the minutia of cheese vs. pepperoni, there are loopholes in the way the law is interpreted by the House Ethics Committee through which you can drive a Brink’s truck. A corporation or other lobby group can no longer celebrate the achievements of one individual congressperson with a big gala, but an entire delegation can be honored – as long as no specific members are named on the invitations or in the programs or during the speeches.

So, US Bank and Visa are hosting a party at the Democratic convention for the freshman House Democrats. AT&T, which has given $3.2 million to Federal candidates in this election cycle, and spent millions more on lobbying, is co-sponsoring a party in Denver for the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, just one of more than a dozen parties the telecom is throwing at the two conventions.

In addition, as per the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, because of exceptions allowed by the Federal Election Commission, “Millions of unregulated dollars are being funneled to the national party conventions through so-called, nonpartisan ‘host committees.’ These committees claim to be helping Denver and the Twin Cities, but they are really just using the sizable donations for political purposes.” This tax-deductible, “soft money” includes the million dollar contributions the Obama campaign has solicited for the skyboxes at Invesco Field during his acceptance speech.

There will be more than 400 parties and other events at the Democratic and Republican conventions. Corporations and other special interests will contribute more than $100 million. That can buy a lot of influence. Just a few of the others involved: the Nuclear Energy Institute, Allstate, Wachovia, Union Pacific, ConocoPhillips, Molson-Coors, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Qwest, Target, Staples, SEIU, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle, Nancy Watzman, director of the Sunlight Foundation’s interactive Party Time Project, which is monitoring convention activity, noted, “These are all the same people who have a big lobbying presence in D.C., and they all have major issues before Congress and the executive branch.”

Amanda Burk, a Denver party planner told The New York Times, “We’re trying to comply with the law and still make sure people get enough to eat.” Ms. Burk, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Unlike the more than 37 million Americans who live below the poverty level, lobbyists and the fat cats they represent will never go hungry. Like water inexorably seeking its level, eroding as it travels, they will find a way.

My dad wouldn’t have let these guys anywhere near his cash registers.

MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

Check local airtimes or comment at The Moyers Blog at


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MICHAEL WINSHIP is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.

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