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Being in Congress Has Perks

Cable, Travel Troubles Resolved Fast for VIPs

Tired of lousy customer service from your cable company or the airlines? Maybe you should run for Congress.

Despite increasingly strict rules governing gifts for Members of Congress and administration officials, some companies still provide special customer service perks to lawmakers, staff and top officials in Washington, D.C. — ranging from a quicker response when the cable goes out to double-booking privileges with airlines.

“The last thing you want is the people who could legislate or regulate you out of business to be pissed off at your customer service,” said one longtime Washington advocate familiar with the VIP customer care programs.

At 10 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day when one wireless industry lobbyist got a call from a lawmaker who was frustrated that the Internet at his neighbor’s Washington law firm had been out for days, the lobbyist called the Internet service provider that was his client.

“I’m sure 20 years ago when the rules were a lot more lax, there was probably a lot more than this,” the consultant said. “I think companies today are very careful.”

“Virtually every big office has some preferential treatment for VIPs,” another telecom industry lobbyist told Roll Call. “I know the wireless industry does it. ... If you’re a chief of staff or a prominent Member, more times than not you just call the lobbyist and then boom — you’re priority.”

“It’s just another example of special interests taking care of Members of Congress and their staff,” he added.

Current and former employees and lobbyists for wireless, cable television and Internet providers interviewed for this story — most of whom declined to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss internal practices — said some companies provided a dedicated phone line for government officials. Others said the system was less formal, a kind of unofficial agreement that lawmakers should call lobbyists when they have a problem.

Some perks reach beyond the Beltway. Most major airlines have phones lines dedicated to customers on Capitol Hill, aides and lobbyists told Roll Call. To accommodate their unpredictable travel schedules, Members are allowed to reserve seats on multiple flights but pay only for the one they board.

A spokesman for Delta confirmed the airline has  a Congressional call desk and allows Members to double-book flights. United Continental Holdings Inc., US Airways and American Airlines, all of which are rumored to have similar practices, did not return Roll Call’s request for comment.

“We get on every single flight,” said one Capitol Hill aide familiar with process. “Every offices uses it. ... The scheduler uses it for Members and chiefs of staff who fly.”

The perks have long raised the ire of consumer advocates.

“They are treated completely differently from the time they book their ticket until the time they land at the airport,” said Kate Hanni, director of Flyers Rights, an airline passenger advocacy organization.

Members of Congress, diplomats and Supreme Court justices are also given free parking in special lots at two Washington-area airports — 89 spaces out of about 8,000 at Reagan National Airport and 97 reserved out of 25,000 total spaces at Dulles International Airport, according to Rob Yingling, a spokesman for Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

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