Bill Energized By Pricey Trips

Large Electric Companies Paid Tab for Tauzin, Domenici Aides

Posted November 17, 2003 at 6:44pm

As Congress began putting the finishing touches on landmark energy legislation this summer, top Republican authors of the bill flew across the country and around the world meeting with executives of large U.S. electric companies on their dime to discuss the industry and its regulations, according to newly released forms.

The documents show that senior aides to Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and his Senate counterpart, Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), were among eight Congressional staffers who attended an industry-sponsored seminar on electricity issues in London and Scotland over the August recess that cost up to $6,000 per aide.

Days after the aides returned home, the electricity industry flew Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the author of the House version of the bill, and his top energy aide to a quarterly meeting of executives from U.S. power companies in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Tauzin, Barton and Domenici are among the small group of Republican lawmakers who drafted the final version of the energy bill that in many ways reflects the influence of the electric utilities and their Washington lobbying arm, Edison Electric Institute, which funded the travel.

The legislation, which came out of conference committee over the weekend and will go to the House and Senate floor this week, removes a decades-old restriction on utility mergers and prevents the federal government from gaining explicit powers over the utilities’ lines.

Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project said the electricity industry’s trips may have helped cement the GOP’s decision to concede to the wishes of the power companies.

The Edison Electric Institute “got what they wanted and maybe this travel helped,” he said.

The electric industry’s trips came in August, just days after a massive blackout exposed critical weaknesses in the nation’s electricity grid.

But utility executives say the travel was planned months before the blackouts.

“Timing is everything, as they say, but there was no real connection between the two,” said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute.

Still, the trips provided lobbyists for the electricity industry with a key opportunity to pitch the bill’s authors on what they hoped to see in the final version of the bill, which the aides began drafting when they returned to Washington.

Though many thought the blackouts would jolt lawmakers into giving the federal government explicit authority to force utilities into regional transmission organizations — which many view as the best way to strengthen the reliability of the electric grid — the bill bows to pressure from the industry by not granting new powers to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Documents show eight aides participated in the Edison Electric Institute trip, including Dan Brouillette, Tauzin’s top aide and staff director of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Lisa Epifani, the top GOP electricity aide on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources panel.

Brouillette and Epifani spent about $4,500 on the trips, including about $1,800 on airfare, $1,785 on hotel rooms, $796 for meals and $114 for briefing materials.

Another Capitol Hill aide on the trip, Karin Hope with Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), rang up a $6,000 bill on the industry’s tab.

According to a six-page agenda provided by the Edison Electric Institute, the weeklong trip included several briefings with U.S. energy executives and European utility regulators, as well as a tour of one of Europe’s largest coal-fired power plants.

Officials from three large U.S. utilities, Northwest Utilities, Excel Energy and PSE&G, joined the Congressional aides on the excursion.

The Congressional aides also attended an hour-and-a-half briefing led by a senior executive from Ohio’s American Electric Power, the largest U.S. electricity provider.

Staffers who attended the industry-sponsored events said the trips did not change their opinions on mandatory regional transmission organizations.

Marnie Funk, a spokesman for Domenici, said the electricity legislation approved by his panel in May already blocked new FERC authority. Domenici also promised Senators this summer that he would not allow FERC to expand its authority over the electricity grid for several years.

“Chairman Domenici has a long-standing position that [regional transmission organization] membership should be voluntary,” Funk said. “An educational trip taken by a staffer three months later hasn’t changed that position one iota.”

Other aides said the electricity industry’s trips gave them valuable insights into how to prevent similar blackouts in the future.

“Frankly, it turned out to be fortuitous timing,” said Ken Johnson, a spokesman for Tauzin. “Many of the issues discussed on the trip, including the reliability of transmission grids, became focal points of our committee’s hearings on the blackouts” in early September.

To be sure, the electricity industry did not get everything it wanted in the bill. Congressional Republicans rejected a push by the privately owned utilities to subject municipal power companies and cooperatives to the same federal regulations they face.

Still, the industry trips highlight the potential benefits that a well-heeled set of companies can receive by paying for key aides to attend educational or so-called fact-finding trips.

Lawmakers and their aides are allowed — even encouraged — to participate in industry-funded conferences and tours of energy plans because such trips give public policy makers a first-hand understanding of the impact of the laws and regulations they craft.

Funk said that Domenici urges his aides to “take full advantage” of “any opportunities staff has during the recess to learn more about the issues they cover.”

Meredith McGehee of Common Cause agreed that Members of Congress and staff “shouldn’t stay in Washington and never do anything.”

But she said that industry-sponsored trips can go too far by giving one side of the issue an incredible opportunity to make their case to lawmakers and staff.

“If you are not as wealthy as the electricity institute, you are not going to be able to make your case in the same compelling way,” McGehee said.

Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project added that lengthy trips, such as the ones sponsored by the electricity industry, provide a lot of time for lawmakers and lobbyists to “cement relations that are as good as gold when they get back to D.C.”

Congressional rules require that participants fill out a one-page form within 30 days after returning to Washington breaking down the cost of the trip and disclosing the sponsor.

Those forms show that the power companies’ trip was just one of dozens of excursions that Members of Congress and their staffs attended over the August recess paid for by corporations and industries they oversee.

According to the forms, the pharmaceutical industry flew more than a dozen health care aides to San Francisco for a two-day tour of drug-making plants as Congress worked on a Medicare reform bill.

The Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston paid for key aides — including four staffers to House Financial Services Chairman Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) — to travel to Boston for a two-day workshop on legislation affecting the regulation of the federally chartered corporations.

Smokeless-tobacco company Swedish Match brought a handful of aides to Richmond for a talk on cigarette regulation and a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race at the Richmond International Raceway.

And media giant Clear Channel flew more than one dozen House and Senate aides to a two-day seminar in New York that featured tours of company-owned radio stations and concert venues — highlighted by a free Counting Crows show and the opportunity to buy a seat to see Billy Joel.