This spring, four House Republicans used money from their Congressional office accounts to send five staff members to a training seminar run by a conservative Christian group in Indiana that is leading the charge in the state for an amendment to ban gay marriage.
The expense, totaling $2,500 for the group, is a perfectly legal use of taxpayer money, but it highlights the broad array of things Members of Congress can pay for out of their office accounts. The payments also underscore the tight web of relationships Members can build with favored causes without violating rules against using taxpayer money to fund political activity.
In April, four House Members from Indiana paid the Indiana Family Institute to enroll staffers in the group’s annual training course called the Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series.
The Indiana Family Institute is the state affiliate of the Family Research Council, focusing its efforts on supporting traditional heterosexual marriage while opposing gay marriage and abortion. Last year, the group’s political action committee, Indiana Family Action, helped fund an ad attacking Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) for voting for the health care overhaul, which the ad called “the biggest expansion of abortion in decades.”
Roll Call has previously documented that Members spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on training for their staff, with broad leeway on the training they pay for. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a bicycle and transit advocate, spent $1,400 in October to send several staff to a pro-transit conference in Portland called Rail-Volution, where he was a keynote speaker. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) paid $400 to a social worker named John Powers for crisis-management training during his biennial office retreat.
But the April payments of $500 from Indiana GOP Reps. Larry Bucshon, Dan Burton and Todd Young and $1,000 from Rep. Todd Rokita to the Indiana Family Institute stand out because it is rare for Congressional offices to make direct payments to political organizations.
House rules prohibit the use of official funds for political purposes, but the House Administration Committee’s “member Handbook” allows expenditures for “ordinary and necessary expenses for Members or employees to attend conferences, seminars, briefings, professional training, and informational programs related to the official and representational duties to the district from which elected.”
Josh Gillespie, Burton’s communications director and an alumni of the Indiana Family Institute training program, points out that the training is run through IFI’s nonprofit arm — not the PAC — so “any money coming from our office is not going to any political activity.”
The IFI website describes the Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series as a monthly class intended to “advance conservative policy and faith-based servant leadership principles” among Indiana “community leaders.” The group generally meets once a month from April through November, hears presentations from local policy and business leaders, tours a local hospital and makes a trip to Washington, D.C.
Several current and former Indiana Republican Members of Congress are listed as “Founding Congressional Sponsors,” including Burton and Rep. Mike Pence and ex-Reps. John Hostettler, Mike Sodrel and Steve Buyer. The group’s website once listed former Rep. Mark Souder as a founding sponsor, but he has been dropped from the site since leaving Congress last year after the married Souder acknowledged having an affair with a married aide.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.