* FEBRUARY 17, 2009
Congressional Junkets Defended as Work-Based
By ELIZABETH WILLIAMSON
HOT SPRINGS, Va. -- Republican members of the House of Representatives took a break earlier this month from bashing the Democrats' $800 billion stimulus bill and journeyed here to the Homestead Resort, an 18th-century mountain spa, where the diversions include golf, skiing, skeet shooting and falconry.
Republican lawmakers paid for their travel and lodging, mostly with campaign funds. Staffers' bills and the rest of the tab was picked up by the Congressional Institute, which is funded by 54 "patrons," including General Electric Co. and the National Association of Home Builders. About 45 lobbyists attended a dinner on opening night.
House Republican Conference spokesman Matt Lloyd, said Republicans accept partial corporate funding of the retreat because "We don't believe in using taxpayer money."
[The Breakers Palm Beach, site of a coming Republican fund-raiser.] Alamy
The Breakers Palm Beach, site of a coming Republican fund-raiser.
A few days later, as the stimulus bill inched forward, Democrats held a two-day issues conference at the Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Va., a property owned by brewer Anheuser Bush-Inbev NV and whose spa is known for its hops and chamomile massage. Taxpayers helped foot the bill, which was paid partly with money appropriated for congressional office expenses.
"Our issues conference, especially this year, was a very serious working session," said Emily Barocas, spokeswoman for the Democratic Caucus. President Barack Obama took his maiden Air Force One voyage to rally support from fellow Democrats for the stimulus plan.
The sour economy and public outrage have put a damper on corporate junkets to posh resorts, especially for banks that took taxpayers' money as part of the financial rescue plan.
But as they fume over inflated salaries and lavish travel by executives whose companies are on the federal dole, members of Congress are getting a raise, and making travel plans.
Last month, when 600,000 Americans lost their jobs, the House and Senate allowed themselves a $4,700 cost-of-living raise, bringing their annual salaries to $174,000. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders said they would forgo a similar increase next year. So far the Senate hasn't followed suit, but a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said they plan to.
As the stimulus bill made its way through Congress, companies with a stake in provisions buried in the bill's more than 600 pages had plenty of opportunities to meet with lawmakers at events the companies helped to bankroll. Such meetings are commonplace, but they have taken on added importance as the stimulus plan, the financial bailout and other spending bills offer Congress unusual power to choose corporate winners and losers.
Lobbyists may not directly pay for lawmakers' travel and meals, under recently strengthened Congressional ethics rules. So instead, corporations contribute to tax-exempt groups -- and those groups pay for lawmakers to attend events.
Sometimes the events -- and the networking and socializing that go with them -- take place in Washington. Last week, prominent Democrats including Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Amy Klobucharof Minnesota, and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison shared a dais at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel with energy and environmental lobbyists at the sprawling "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" conference.
The event was organized by the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups. Sponsors included BP PLC, Alcoa Inc. and the American Wind Energy Association, which lobbied hard for generous renewable energy incentives in the stimulus bill. At an invitation-only VIP event attended by sponsors and lawmakers, Speaker Pelosi was presented with the Blue Green Alliance Green Jobs Champion Award.
Asked about Ms. Pelosi's award, her spokesman Brendan Daly said, "The Speaker remains committed to transparency and will continue to monitor the Lobbying Disclosure Act to ensure that the aims of the lobbying reforms are met."
Spokesmen for Rep. Ellison and Sen. Stabenow said they accepted speaking invitations because sustainable energy and green jobs are priorities for them. An aide to Sen. Klobuchar said the only individual she spoke with at the meeting was the steelworker who introduced her.
In November, as the federal government worked to rescue financial markets, four Republican and four Democratic lawmakers were in Amsterdam on a trip sponsored by the Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange. Every year, the group takes members of Congress on a weeklong trip to an international capital "to discuss varying views on important international issues," according to a statement of its purpose. The group stayed at the five-star Grand Hotel Amrath, a historic art nouveau hotel and wellness spa.
The nonprofit group's board of directors includes lobbyists from UAL Corp., Exelon Corp. and Duke Energy Corp., according to a list supplied by spokesman Trent Duffy. A separate bipartisan "honorary board" is composed of members of Congress.
Travelers on the Netherlands trip Nov. 9-14 included Rep. Joe Baca (D., Calif.); Rep. Ellison; Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.); Rep. James Lamborn (R., Colo.); Rep. Frank Lucas (R., Okla.); Rep. James Moran (D., Va.); Rep. Jean Schmidt (R., Ohio); and Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.).
The group discussed climate change, economic policy, health care and other topics with European officials, diplomats, corporate executives and lobbyists.
Spokespeople for Reps. Ellison, Gutierrez and Moran said the meetings were directly related to their work in Congress, and an opportunity to discuss those issues with European counterparts. Reps. Lamborn, Lucas and Schmidt said they valued the exchange with foreign policy makers on trade, defense and national security. Aides to Reps. Baca and Sensenbrenner didn't respond to requests for a comment.
Spokesman Trent Duffy declined to name the center's financial backers, saying support comes "from foundations and private donations." Its trips, he said, undergo a "very open" and thorough congressional ethics review.
Next up for Congress this month, once the stimulus debate is done: an overhaul of financial services regulation; help for homeowners -- and two Senate fund raisers in Florida. Senate Democrats will host their biggest campaign contributors at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, with a Greg Norman-designed golf course and 51,000 square-foot spa. Republicans chose The Breakers in Palm Beach, a Renaissance-style landmark on 140 oceanfront acres, where the lowest-price room this time of year lists at $600, when available. The bills are paid with campaign funds, more of which the parties hope to garner on the trips.
Spokesmen for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee declined to comment on the plans.
Write to Elizabeth Williamson at email@example.com
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