Friday, March 25, 2011

Government lobbying rules

This past Tuesday, I participated in a very interesting event at NYU Law School: the 11th Annual NYU/KPMG Tax Lecture, featuring several hours of lectures, panel discussions with audience participation, and tightly structured debates on various topics within the purview of “Increasing Transparency in the U.S. Self Assessment Tax System: A Paradigm Shift.”

The event always features one or more prominent speakers from the Treasury Department or IRS, along with practitioners and academics from New York and around the country.

Here's an odd fact about such events. When one invites Treasury or IRS officials, as inevitably one does since both the organizers and audience are eager to hear what they are thinking, even just paying for airfare and hotels is potentially an issue. Taking them to dinner, even to plan a conference session, is pretty much out of the question.

What's amusing about this is the combination of Draconian restriction here, where it really doesn't matter much (though I agree that there are genuine concerns being addressed), with the utter flexibility of the rules governing members of Congress. I'm pretty sure you can hold a week-long conference in Hawaii, fly out an important tax committee member first-class or in a corporate jet, put him in a luxury suite, have golfing outings each day and fancy dinners each night, hold ongoing "seminars" that are essentially lobbying sessions, make large campaign contributions, etcetera, and not have a concern in the world apart from some minor tax planning issues (e.g., what can you deduct, or alternatively should you run it through a tax-exempt organization).

UPDATE: In case I was being too Delphic, this comment is meant to be read in light of the prior one. It might be illuminating to compare the ethical issues that would have been raised by the NYU/KPMG Tax Lecture organizers buying dinner for an upper level IRS official to those suggested in the NYT story on GE with regard to Congressman Rangel.

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