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Dozens of lawmakers and staffers made what has become an annual pilgrimage from Capitol Hill to the desert in mid-January to attend the trade show hosted by the Consumer Electronics Association each winter in Las Vegas.
The International CES, as the event was called this year, is a four-day conference that draws tech industry leaders, investors, celebrities, media and policymakers. This January, more than 3,250 exhibitors unveiled tablets, smartphones, high-definition televisions, driverless-vehicle technology and other gadgets. There were panel discussions on immigration, patent trolls and other policy issues.
Though congressional attendees in the past were largely forced to limit their visits to a day, a handful of staffers this year capitalized on two ethics rules that allowed them to turn a quick convention stop into a four-day, three-night trip, with the Consumer Electronics Association picking up most of the tab.
“I don’t look at the staffers and say, ‘You sneaky little folks.’ I look at this and say, ‘Until Congress is willing to bite the bullet and set up a travel system that makes sense, you’re going to have these kinds of situations all the time,’” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.
At least 32 lawmakers and staffers attended the show in mid-January as guests of the association, which shelled out more than $44,000 for their airfare, hotel accommodations and other expenses, according to tallies provided by LegiStorm. The guest list included Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Reps. Lee Terry, R-Neb., Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Gerald E. Connolly, D-Va., according to post-travel disclosure filings. Those totals could rise as stragglers in the Senate file their disclosure reports, which are due 30 days after a trip is completed.
House lawmakers and staffers normally cannot accept lobbyist-sponsored travel connected to official business lasting more than one day. The Consumer Electronics Association spent about $2.8 million last year on lobbying activities, according to OpenSecrets.org. Attendees were reminded of the restriction when they received their pre-travel approval letters from the House Ethics Committee late last year.
“We remind you that, because the trip sponsor employs a federal lobbyist, you may participate in officially-connected activity on one calendar day only. For purposes of this trip, officially-connected activity includes attending conference sessions and visiting the product exhibits on the ‘Show Floor,’” read a pre-approval letter sent in mid-December from then-Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and ranking member Linda T. Sánchez, D-Calif.