Members Dining on Politics

Posted May 16, 2003 at 6:31pm

Though the Capitol is considered a campaign-free zone, Federal Election Commission records indicate that some House lawmakers are using the Members’ Dining Room for campaign-related meetings.

In campaign reports filed with the FEC for the 2001-02 election cycle, nearly a dozen Members disclosed that they held meetings in the exclusive dining room to discuss “political,” “campaign” and even “fundraising” matters.

The meetings, which were paid for by the Members’ own re-election campaigns, do not appear to violate campaign finance law, which bars Members from raising money in the Capitol.

But the fact that the Members disclosed the political meals on their own fundraising reports shows that at least some lawmakers have no fear of infringing on the spirit of House ethics guidelines.

According to the FEC data compiled by a search on PoliticalMoneyLine.com, Members held more than 150 meetings in the Members’ Dining Room to talk about campaign activity or fundraising.

Since then-Vice President Al Gore was chastised for making fundraising calls from his office in the late 1990s, Members of Congress have “made an excellent effort to split their official duty and campaign activity,” said Kent Cooper of PoliticalMoneyLine.com. “But in this situation some Members have reported using a government building for campaign activity.”

House ethics rules on the topic are murky at best. According to guidelines published by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Members are prohibited from using House rooms and offices “for events that are campaign or political in nature,” such as a campaign strategy meeting or fundraiser.

But the rules are loosely enforced. “The way this stuff is written, as long as you don’t receive or make a solicitation, it is OK,” said Meredith McGehee, a former official at Common Cause. “Can you reward donors? Yes. Could you talk strategy? I think that is a little closer to the line, but I don’t know that it constitutes a clear violation.”

“This is an area that the House ethics rules hasn’t addressed and thus is permitted activity,” she added.

Still, many campaign lawyers advise their clients to keep campaign and fundraising activity away from the Capitol.

“As a lawyer, we wouldn’t recommend meeting in the Dining Room,” said one campaign lawyer who did not want to be identified. “It’s not consistent with the guidance that has been issued by the ethics committee.”

Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics said that such discussions between a House Member and campaign staff in the Members’ Dining Room “bump up close to the line on what Members are permitted to do with their offices.”

Even some House aides acknowledged that the campaign meetings in Members’ Dining Room highlight a bit of a gray area in the law.

On the record, however, they say the meals are “completely above board,” in the words of Dan Drummond, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.).

Moran’s re-election account paid for four meals for his campaign staff in the House Dining Room.

Moran was hardly alone.

Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) revealed on his own FEC reports that he had conducted a pair of fundraising meetings in the House Dining Room in June 2002, though his spokeswoman insisted that her boss did not do “any sort of campaigning” during the meals.

Rep. Jim Ryun (R-Kan.) often escorts campaign contributors to the Members’ Dining Room to thank them for their support.

“When donors come to town, Jim will often take them to lunch anywhere on the Hill,” said Mark Kelly, Ryun’s chief of staff. The meals are “just thank you kind of lunches. Clearly no solicitations of money will be made.”

Ryun’s report showed he picked up the bill at three such “donor lunches” in 2001 and 2002 for a total of $195.08.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn) paid for 40 “political meals” in the Dining Room in the past two years, according to his FEC reports.

“If there were campaign workers down here, he might have taken them there,” said Barry Feldman, the treasurer of Larson’s re-election campaign.

Feldman, who has joined his boss for a few meals in the Dining Room, said Larson and his aides discussed the “re-election campaign or politics generally, not necessarily specifically related to the campaign.”

“We might have been discussing political issues, generally, that the Congressman would have to use for the campaign,” he added.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) disclosed 39 “campaign meals” in the Members’ Dining Room in 2001 and 2002. An aide said the Congressman dined with constituents in those cases.

“We have never used the House Dining Room for any campaign meetings, fundraisers or events,” said Evan Keefer, a spokesman for Bachus.

Keefer said the Congressman listed “campaign meal” on the FEC forms “to clearly show the source of the funds that were used.”

Likewise, a spokesman for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said the $1,520.51 his campaign spent on 51 meals in the Dining Room were not for campaign activity.

“No campaign staff were part of these discussions,” said spokesman Chris Chinchester.