Members Travel on Nuclear Dime

NEI Tops the List of Groups Paying for Congressional Trips

Posted April 2, 2003 at 5:43pm

The Nuclear Energy Institute has never been considered much of a fundraising power, pumping less soft money into political accounts last year than Outback Steakhouse.

Yet the industry scored its biggest-ever legislative win last summer when Congress voted to create a dump for nuclear waste beneath a deserted mountain in the middle of Nevada.

That victory, achieved during the height of the soft-money era, highlights the kind of political payoff that can come from a loosely regulated lobbying tactic that has been overshadowed by startling, multimillion-dollar contributions: privately sponsored Congressional travel.

The nuclear industry’s trade group shelled out nearly $170,000 to bring lawmakers and aides to the proposed Yucca Mountain disposal site and nuclear power plants in the United States and Europe last year alone. The three-day trips, which often included overnight stays in Las Vegas hotels and nights on the town, helped the industry generate the political support it needed to prevail on Capitol Hill.

“We believe it’s important for Members and staff to see the Yucca Mountain site and to go to other plants sites and see how they operate,” said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the trade association. “We don’t apologize for it.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute was just one of dozens of business groups last year that flew Members and staff around the country while working to approve favorable legislation on Capitol Hill.

According to a Roll Call analysis of thousands of pages of travel disclosure forms, the top 30 corporate sponsors of Congressional travel spent more than $800,000 on domestic travel for lawmakers in 2002.

“A trip provides a private special interest with a means for getting access,” said Meredith McGehee, a former official at Common Cause who recently started her own firm. “You get time on the plane, you may take them around to see the sights — there is a lot of face time on these trips.”

Many of the corporations and interest groups who are most active in the travel area, like the Nuclear Energy Institute, have important business before Congress.

As the debate over broadband legislation heated up last spring, for example, competing players in the telecommunications industry spent more than $100,000 flying key Congressional staffers to various rival conferences at resorts around the country.

In early April of last year, SBC Communications sponsored a three-day retreat for several dozen House and Senate aides in San Diego. The conference, held just a month after the House approved the SBC-backed Tauzin-Dingell bill, cost the Texas-based Baby Bell about $1,700 per legislative staffer, according to travel forms filled out by the aides.

Attendees at the conference maintained a busy agenda, according to a schedule of events.

Tim McKone, the chief Washington lobbyist for the telecommunications giant, led the retreat along with William Daley, the former Clinton administration official who now serves as the company’s vice president.

The policymakers also visited an SBC switching plant. “When you can actually see it in practice it gels,” said SBC spokesman George Thompson.

Among those who attended the conference were the telecom counsels to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.) — the sponsors of the SBC-backed bill — as well as an aide to Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). Breaux, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, introduced broadband legislation in the Senate later that month.

At the same time, a group of companies that oppose the broadband legislation — led by AT&T — sponsored its own industry forum for Hill staffers in Charlottesville, Va.

To be sure, $100,000 in travel expenses are pennies compared to the $14.2 million in soft money contributed by SBC, the Baby Bells and their telecom rivals since 1999, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Paying for Congressional travel also comes with few strings. Unlike raising funds for hard-dollar contributions, companies can dip directly into corporate accounts to pay for travel and hotel stays.

Travel costs also do not trigger the Congressional ban on gifts and expensive meals.

The only rules require lawmakers and staff to file a simple, one-page disclosure form. Now that soft money has been banned, some believe the number of such trips could mushroom.

“If they can’t play the soft-money game, they will find other ways to do it,” said McGehee. “That is the way money and politics works in this city.”

Though watchdog groups stop short of calling for a ban on such travel, they argue that the trips create the potential for abuse.

“They are sort of like an expanded lobbying visit,” said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. “Sometimes there are lobbyists crawling all over the Members for days and days.”

In the months after the collapse of Enron Corp., the travel documents show, the remaining players in the energy trading industry sponsored several out-of-town conferences as they worked to head off new regulations.

In January, the industry’s Washington trade group, the Electric Power Supply Association, flew a handful of top aides on the House Energy and Commerce and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committees to Vail, Colo., for a convention.

A month later, Reliant Energy flew a few staffers to Houston to discuss the energy markets “in the wake of Enron’s collapse.” The Texas-based company paid $418 per aide to cover transportation, lodging and meals —plus $20 for a ticket to the rodeo.

Another leading energy trading firm, Mirant Inc., flew a top aide to Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) to Hong Kong at a cost of more than $1,600 to visit the company’s Asia-Pacific headquarters. Back in the United States, El Paso paid for a top House energy aide to travel to Vail for a speech, seminar and two-day golf tournament.

The aggressive effort helped the industry fend off legislation from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would have slapped new regulations on the industry. Feinstein pulled the bill from the Senate floor in May after a group of Democrats dropped their support.

However, Feinstein later rejuvenated her effort and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week moved toward levying massive fines against the industry’s top players, including Reliant and Mirant.

Not all of the companies that finance trips are the target of legislation. Many trips are intended to cement relationships.

The Harness Tracks of America wagered $1,176.30 to bring Chafee, who used to work in the horse industry, to its annual conference in Las Vegas last year.

Royal Caribbean International helped former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and his wife bid bon voyage to the Senate with a three-day, $1,512 “Congressional oversight cruise” in November 2001.

The Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture covered the $1,709 cost for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to fly to Palm Beach, Fla., and stay at the renowned Breakers Hotel to deliver remarks at a seminar.

Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) accepted a free trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, last summer to participate in a panel discussion on the railroad industry. Unfortunately for Grassley, the conference ended a few weeks before the annual Hall of Fame inductions.

Congressional aides took several interesting corporate-sponsored trips as well. An aide to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) went on a one-day fact-finding trip to Fort Worth, Texas, on the tab of Stevens Gin Co.

Meantime, the Professional Bail Agents of the United States flew a House Judiciary Committee counsel to its annual convention in — appropriately — Las Vegas.

But no lobbying group outpaced the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“We try to run a vigorous program,” said industry spokesman Kerekes.

In the past decade, the group has spent more than $1 million flying Members and staffers to the waste dump site and nuclear plants around the globe, according to industry lobbyists.

Over last year’s Independence Day recess, Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) took a nine-day tour of nuclear generators in Barcelona and Seville, Spain, courtesy of the nuclear group. Boehner and Burr, each champions of the industry, brought their wives for a total cost to the Nuclear Energy Institute of $33,719.30.

The industry also sent several Senate aides on $3,700, three-day visits to plants in Paris — and a separate group to Florida Power & Light’s Turkey Point station near Miami in early January.

Still, the industry’s focus has been Yucca, at least until President Bush signed the nuclear-backed bill in July.

The trade group has an annual budget of $28 million for all its operations and sponsors a dozen Congressional trips each year, most of which go to Yucca.

Kerekes said the trips are more valuable to the industry than a large financial contribution.

“I don’t know how much education one is doing with a PAC contribution,” he said.

In contrast, the trips to Nevada underscore the industry’s message that Yucca is a safe and remote location to store thousands of tons of nuclear waste for eternity.

Said Kerekes: “For anyone who has been out to Yucca to take the bus ride out there that is almost two hours and see the remoteness and stand on top of that desert ridge and see nothing but landscape as far as the eye can see is to understand the remoteness of the place.”