The Mercatus Center, a think tank at George Mason University, went forward with its 16th annual Capitol Hill Campus Chief of Staff retreat in late February, but it found that overall Congressional attendance was 50 percent lower than in previous years, said Carrie Conko, a spokeswoman for Mercatus.
The bipartisan retreat held in Richmond’s Jefferson Hotel drew 53 percent fewer Democratic aides than years past and 46 percent fewer Republican staffers, she said.
“We did make follow-up calls to people who had attended in previous years, and they almost unanimously stated that office policies kept them from attending this year,” Conko said.
Mercatus covers the cost of staffers’ hotel rooms and their travel to and from the event, which, Conko said, looks at issues through an economic and academic perspective. She said that Mercatus still plans to hold the retreat next year in Williamsburg, Va., on Feb. 23-24 in conjunction with Jamestown 2007, the 400th anniversary of European settlement there. (Ken Gross, a government and lobbying ethics specialist at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said that organizations cannot pay for lodging unless the event happens more than 35 miles outside of the area where the staffer or Member is based, either in Washington, D.C., or from the home district “duty station.”)
Susan Stout with the Grocery Manufacturers of America said her association called off a longstanding annual conference at the luxurious Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va., with no plans to bring it back.
“It wasn’t really because of anything other than we’ve done this for a long time,” she said. “We’ll look at doing some sort of industry event on the Hill that might showcase the membership.”
Stout said that the program included
two nights’ stay, dinner with a speaker on Friday and Saturday nights and panels during the day. “It was heavily programmed,” she said. “It wasn’t, ‘Let’s just go play at the resort.’”
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said his group pays for Members and staff to attend its annual show in Las Vegas every January. The event attracts 150,000 participants, 4,000 journalists and, this year, 100 Members and other government employees. “We had two Members of Congress cancel” this year, Shapiro said. “They cited the Abramoff scandal.”
Shapiro said he supports more disclosure and pre-clearance when it comes to privately funded trips but vehemently opposes a ban.
“There’s clearly a very strong sense on Capitol Hill that there is an extreme political overreaction that is not separating between absolutely necessary travel from boondoggles,” he said. “We’re phenomenally concerned.”
Members’ and staffers’ unwillingness to be whisked away by corporations or groups has forced some lobbyists to get more creative about setting up on-site visits with lawmakers.
Thomas Hogan of F/S Capitol Consulting represents the Louis Berger Group, an engineering firm with contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hogan said the company isn’t offering to pay for Members’ travel.
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.