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.
IFI President Curt Smith told Roll Call that Souder was the driving force behind the training sessions a half-dozen years ago. Smith and Souder had previously worked together for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) years before Smith joined the IFI, and Souder believed that while there were other leadership programs in the Hoosier state, “there is kind of a conservative leadership thing missing.” The institute’s training series is designed to “create a network across the state of like-minded conservative grass-roots folks” who will focus on “community-based instead of government-based” solutions to problems.
The group now has about 100 alumni, including a dozen or so former and current Congressional staff, and part of the idea is to “try to keep the class connected over the years so there would be a directory and some cross-pollination,” Smith said. He noted that if Pence wins the Indiana gubernatorial race next year, the IFI will have a list of leadership trainees who could be good candidates to fill jobs in a Pence administration.
Smith argues that as a training program, Congress is more than getting its money’s worth, with staffers receiving thousands of dollars’ worth of experience and education for $500 apiece.
Aside from sending their staff, the Members also offer their time to the IFI for the training sessions. Burton has spoken to the group on its annual trips to Washington, and Rokita spokesman Timothy Edson said the Congressman is scheduled to speak to the group when it comes to D.C. in October. He said the IFI training “is something that, to our knowledge, is completely acceptable as far as an official expense. ... There is value in bringing people together from nonprofit and faith-based communities to advance things.”
Smith said the training is nonpolitical and emphasizes that it is run by the IFI, which is separate from the PAC — though the organizations have the same board of directors and Smith and other IFI employees are also part of the PAC.
“I think it is good for a Congressional office to make modest investments in the professional development of their staff,” Smith said. He also said that when the program was first created, the Members involved cleared it with the House Administration Committee to make sure it would be an appropriate relationship.
“It was a rewarding experience … personally, I was able to connect with other people within the conservative movement” as well as sharing with the group his experiences of working with a Member of Congress, Gillespie said.
He added, “They went through all the ethics rules and guidelines to make sure that it was within the boundaries of the proper use of funds.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.