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.
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.
“We’re being more cautious,” he said. Instead of inviting lawmakers on trips, Hogan said he is keeping tabs on which Members are planning government-funded travel to areas where Louis Berger has rebuilding operations. Hogan said, for example, he has approached aides to Members who are planning on attending an upcoming trip to Afghanistan so the company can show the challenges to building roads and other structures in the area.
“If a legislator is traveling to a particular area, we will see if they can fit it into their schedule, so they can get an understanding of their projects, have a conversation with our engineers,” he said. “That’s the way I think you’re going to have to do it.”