Who wouldn’t want to spend an expenses-paid week later this month in Italy? Apparently, the answer is: not enough Congressional aides and Members.
With the House and Senate hashing out lobbying reform and lawmakers considering both temporary and permanent bans on privately funded travel, it seems that the mere discussion has already accomplished much of what potential new regulations are designed to do. Some associations and companies have canceled upcoming spring jaunts outright, while others have noticed significant drops in Congressional attendance at events that weren’t pulled from the schedule.
Usually, San Diego-based defense company General Atomics ferries staffers to Italy in March. But not this year.
Gary Hopper, the company’s vice president for Washington, D.C., operations, said General Atomics scrubbed the trip because of the ethics reform discussion. Some staffers were unwilling to take trips in the current climate, and others had concerns that even after a trip is planned, it might get jettisoned by newly passed legislation.
“We’ve always followed the House and Senate ethics rules,” Hopper said. “What’s happened now is there tends to be a bit of excitement about whether those rules will change or not. Even though we believe our trips are fairly balanced, we feel like it’s probably best not to participate.”
Some lawmakers have told their aides to take a pass on all privately funded travel in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff ethics scandal and the negative media attention it has inspired.
In previous years, Hopper said, Congressional participants in the Italy trip would meet with U.S. embassy officials, participate in sit-downs with Italian business leaders and visit U.S. military bases such as Aviano Air Base to see the company’s technology in use. Hopper said the trip most likely would have coincided with the upcoming recess the week of March 20. The trip, he said, “stays within the realm of the company’s expertise.”
Then there’s the telecommunications trade group CompTel, which would have held its 18th annual legislative conference during the third week of April in Charlottesville, Va. But that, too, got canceled.
“It’s no secret that a lot of people had to rearrange this stuff because of the issues with the Abramoff fallout,” said Margaret Boles, a spokeswoman for the group. CompTel, she said, decided earlier this year to call it off after gauging interest on Capitol Hill.
Boles said CompTel’s conference provided the association’s members an opportunity to “educate folks on the Hill about what our issues are.” CompTel has not yet decided what, if anything, it will do instead.
Jerry Climer, president of the Congressional Institute, a nonprofit group that has lobbyists on its board, said his group decided several weeks ago to cancel a regular GOP staff retreat that would have been held March 9-10.
“It was all related to the fact that things were too uncertain, and the only logical way to plan was to not plan anything until the dust settles,” he said.
Other groups that kept their events on the calendar have seen notable drops in attendance.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.