Given the recent shock expressed by members of Congress over the very notion of Executive Branch officials accepting free trips, this past column may be enlightening.
‘Educating’ Congress at the hands of lobbyists
Consider the following scene. A lobbyist comes into a congressional office and gives an envelope filled with $100,000 in cash to a member of Congress.
The member expresses shock and throws the envelope back at the lobbyist as a “crude attempt at bribery.” Embarrassed, the lobbyist returns a few minutes later with two first-class tickets and expenses to Europe worth $100,000.
The member thanks the lobbyist for helping the public better understand his industry and accepts the travel package on behalf of himself and his wife.
In the bizarre world of Washington ethics, the distinction by the member is the very essence of good government. In a loophole that you could drive a tour bus through, lobbyists have been spending millions on travel for members of Congress, their aides, and spouses by characterizing trips as “educational.” This month, Congress responded to a growing public outcry due to recent abuses. Rather than close the loophole, however, Congress told members to be more efficient and discreet by spending only two nights at a time at resorts and golf outings.
Congressional rules prohibit the acceptance of gifts worth more than $50, but members argue that these are not gifts but an education. After all, a congressional mind is a terrible thing to waste. Dozens of members have found that, when properly lathered in sun screen and lubed with pina coladas, they can actually visualize the public interest. It turns out that the most conducive learning environment is that well-known center for intellectual discourse and academic research, Las Vegas.
Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) was “educated” in Las Vegas at the ritzy Bellagio Hotel by the National Association of Broadcasters. He was flown first-class to Las Vegas, given tickets to a special performance by Jay Leno, supplied with free poolside drinks and given a $105 Swedish massage in his room. Burr has insisted that the trip was important to his understanding of the industry that he regulates as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Burr later joined Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) to be educated by the Nuclear Energy Institute about nuclear storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
However, Burr and Boehner felt that they could best understand Yucca Mountain not by visiting Nevada but with a paid tour of Barcelona and Seville, Spain–with their wives–at a cost of roughly $34,000.
These trips have brought new meaning to the mantra in Congress of maintaining a “pro-education” record.
Consider a few of the other recently disclosed educational and “public interest” functions:
The American Association of Airport Executives gave almost $100,000 to send three House members and six aides to be educated in Hawaii.
House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) was given $18,000 by the recording industry to tour Asia to speak to foreign leaders.
Sixteen Democratic senators recently unwound from denouncing corporate abuses on the Senate floor by immediately leaving for a trip to Nantucket, Mass., on corporate jets supplied by companies like BellSouth and Eli Lilly.
Three Democratic members of Congress went on an expenses-paid cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship and attended such educational events as the Budweiser Bon Voyage Party and the Bud Lite Beach Party. Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) (who brought her sister), and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) were hosted by the Tom Joyner Foundation as part of a trip dedicated to scholarships for historically black colleges. (A House Ethics Committee recently forced the members to pay back some of the money because it viewed the week-long cruise to be excessive.)
The Recording Industry Association of America has insisted on educating members and staffers in Nashville, including daily tours of the city’s highlights, nightly shows, and free parties at swank bars.
Executive branch officials have used the same loopholes to accept millions from private industry. For example, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell and his colleagues accepted almost $3 million for extensive travel expenses from media companies before their controversial vote to relax merger rules in favor of those same industry interests. Trips to Las Vegas were accepted to better understand the implications of media mergers. In the meantime, Powell refused to hold some public hearings for citizens because of a lack of money.
These lobbying practices do not come cheap, but companies clearly have found that they are worth the money. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has committed $150 million for various lobbying efforts, including the purchase of an “intellectual echo chamber of economists;” the placement of op-ed articles by third parties; funding of overtly independent “research;” and an additional $12.3 million for “alliance development” to secure support from influential groups and individuals.
The more honest members (in Washington terms) admit that it is the location that prompts their participation in these sessions. When questioned how he could allow a staff member to be given an expenses-paid trip by an industry group to Kona, Hawaii, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) stated that the group had to hold it in Hawaii because “if they held it in Newark, a lot fewer people would go.”
Anywhere outside of Washington, these trips would be called what they really are: bribes.
There is an easy way to solve this problem. Congress needs to simply prohibit any acceptance of travel or expenses by members from outside groups. Lobbyists would then be forced to educate members and their aides in their offices. Certainly, members may have found it easier to absorb facts during a Swedish massage at the Bellagio, but they can probably get the gist with a cup of coffee and a fact sheet.
The House Ethics Committee suggested that it would crack down on these trips by limiting them to two days. This is akin to forcing outright bribes to be put in small bills for the purposes of appearance.
Most members continue to believe that voters simply don’t care. Besides, citizens still are getting the best government money can buy–it is just not their money.
The Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2003.