“Tracking” is a distinctly 21st Century political phenomenon in which a campaign arms one or more volunteers with video cameras and assigns them to follow an opposing candidate with the hope of recording a misstep, misstatement, or other mistake. Until now, tracking generally has been confined to campaign rallies, post-debate spin rooms, town hall meetings and, occasionally, the halls of Congress and the streets of Washington, D.C.
Not anymore. Earlier this week, tracking crossed a new threshold when a Rutgers University professor stalked Congressman Paul Ryan as he was having dinner at the Capitol Hill power restaurant Bistro Bis. As the professor slurped down half a bottle of expensive wine in celebration of her birthday, she eavesdropped on the discussion between the Congressman and his two dining companions, and used her smartphone to snap a picture of an even more expensive bottle of wine sitting on Congressman Ryan’s dinner table. Looking the bottle up on the restaurant’s wine list, the professor determined that it sold for $350.
After dinner, the professor turned tracker angrily confronted Congressman Ryan and asked him—incongruously—“how he could live with himself” for drinking from a $350 bottle of wine in light of his calls for cuts in federal spending. She also accused his dining companions of the ultimate Washington crime, lobbying, before a waiter intervened and caused the professor to leave.
If the men dining with Congressman Ryan were lobbyists, then they could not have paid for his meal or his wine. As it turns out, the Congressman’s guests were not lobbyists, but rather economists. Nevertheless, Congressman Ryan paid for his own meal, and he also paid for an entire bottle of wine despite having consumed only one glass. He has even produced the receipt.
From a legal perspective, Congressman Ryan did all the right things. He avoided not only impropriety, but also the appearance of impropriety. At the end of the day, all that is left of this ridiculous, non-newsworthy story is a very simple but important lesson for all Members, staffers and lobbyists. Know the ethics and gift rules, follow them scrupulously, and keep your receipts. In this day and age, you never know who is lurking at the next table. With a smartphone. And an 8-megapixel camera. And an axe to grind.