WASHINGTON (AP) - When corporate titans indulged in perks like private jets and luxury junkets, members of Congress were quick to
criticize. But that hasn't stopped lawmakers from heading for party
retreats at resorts where they spend tens of thousands of taxpayer
dollars and mingle with lobbyists.
"We're very mindful" of perceptions, House Democratic Caucus
Chairman John Larson told reporters Thursday camped outside of the
sprawling Kingsmill Resort & Spa in Williamsburg, Va., where House
Democrats were on their annual three-day retreat, an event which has in the past cost in the neighborhood of $100,000. "It's serious and it's from morning till night. We've been dwelling, rightfully, on the economy," said Larson, D-Conn.
Republicans and Democrats in the House have passed new rules
governing such trips even as lawmakers say the events are useful for negotiating public policy. But with a nation tightening its belt and already fatigued by stories of corporate excess, perceptions matter these days in Washington. Congress risks shattering its glass house throwing stones.
"If it's a luxurious setting or if there's particularly high-level entertainment, then they are running into the same problem," said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a government ethics watchdog group. "They don't get that these are tough economic times, that Americans are struggling and they need to do their part."
Wells Fargo took that point when The Associated Press reported this week that the bank was rewarding its top performers with a lavish conference in Las Vegas, just after the company received a $25 billion bailout from taxpayers. After criticism from Congress, Wells Fargo canceled the getaway.
Democrats and Republicans defend the trips as valuable for the
relationships they strengthen and they say details of such retreats are cleared in advance by the House ethics committee and comply with all rules and laws. Lawmakers pay their own expenses at the House retreats, including room rental, and may use their campaign re-election funds.
Democrats spend taxpayer money on their retreat but do not permit lobbyists to accompany them. The public pays for a charter train from Washington to Williamsburg for many of the 200 members who attend, as well as conference rooms, security and catering.
The round-trip fare on Amtrak is $90 or more. Catered dinners at Kingsmill cost at least $60 per person. Kingsmill's rooms at this time of year start at $119 a night. Democrats will not disclose the exact costs of this year's retreat, though group discounts for travel, food and lodging are common.
Republicans spend no public money on their retreat, which occurred last month at the historic Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., spokesman Matt Lloyd said.
Lawmakers pay for their own transportation and room costs, roughly $190 per night, including food, according to one Republican who attended but spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the trip were not made public.
But Republicans allow special guests to join them: lobbyists who are part of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that arranges events for both political parties. They pay $25,000 to join the institute, which allows them to attend the first night's dinner at the Republican retreat as well as other events throughout the year.
More than 300 people attended the dinner, including 136 Republican House lawmakers and 45 others - mostly lobbyists - from the institute's private sector advisory committee, said the group's president, Mark Strand. The institute also pays the costs of some congressional staffers who attend.
But what about those ugly perceptions of lobbyists meeting privately with lawmakers in posh surroundings?
"If we were paying for spas, if we were paying for golf outings, then you might have a point," Strand said. He said lobbyists are discouraged from talking about business on behalf of their clients during the retreat.
Associated Press writers Ann Sanner in Washington and Liz Sidoti
in Williamsburg, Va., contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Congressional Republicans: http://www.gop.gov/
Congressional Democrats: http://www.dems.gov/
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)