CVC Rooms Used for Retreats, Parties

Posted December 7, 2009 at 6:27pm

Correction Appended

In the year that it has been open, the Capitol Visitor Center has become a place for Members of Congress to hold staff retreats and holiday parties, with some using campaign funds to host events in newly available rooms just steps from their Capitol Hill offices.

The Capitol Visitor Center opened Dec. 2, 2008, providing Congress with an extra 580,000 square feet. Built right up to the Capitol, the CVC has an Exhibition Hall, a 550-seat cafeteria, storage rooms, office space and a handful of meeting rooms that are up for grabs.

In the past, extra space was tough to find, with Members holding events in tucked-away rooms throughout the Capitol or off the Hill entirely. But Members can now reserve rooms in the CVC through an online system, as long as they abide by a series of rules.

CVC officials refused to provide a list of the events recently held in the CVC; spokeswoman Sharon Gang said in an e-mail that the “room schedule is not information that we share with the public.— But a review of Federal Election Commission reports reveals that several Members have used the rooms for holiday parties, staff training and constituent meetings.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was one of the first to reserve one of the CVC’s rooms, spending about $1,900 of his campaign funds for an event soon after the CVC opened. Though the event is listed as a “campaign fundraiser— on the FEC report, spokeswoman Heather Barney said the event was actually a Christmas party for Senate staffers.

Similarly, several Members have used the CVC rooms for staff retreats. In February, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) spent $680 for a retreat that included staffers from her district, and Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) spent $432 in campaign funds on catering for a day of staff training in January.

Braley also hosted two Populist Caucus meetings and a constituent reception, spokeswoman Caitlin Legacki said.

Using campaign funds to hold retreats and holiday parties for staff appears to be allowed under Senate, House and FEC rules. Though House rules state that “campaign funds may not pay for a Member’s official and representational expenses,— House Administration Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson said a party or staff-only expense would not count as an official representational expense. The Senate, meanwhile, prohibits using campaign funds for official expenses but allows their use for “officially related— costs. And a holiday party or staff retreat (or a pricey flight to the Middle East, for example) falls under the latter category.

Furthermore, in the House, Members can’t use their official office budget for food and beverages that will only be consumed by staff, Anderson said. That leads many Members to turn to campaign funds when they want to buy food for their staff or throw a morale-boosting party.

“According to the rules, food and non-alcoholic beverages can be purchased through the MRA [Members Representational Allowance] only if they are used in an official meeting,— he said in an e-mail. “And there have to be outside people included (can’t just be Members and staff). Receptions and holiday parties would not count.—

When reserving rooms, Members also have to abide by a list of additional rules set by the CVC. Those rules follow the basic principles of the House, Senate and FEC rules; for example, Members can’t hold personal parties or fundraisers. CVC officials also require Members to attend the event for which they have reserved a room.

Correction: Dec. 8, 2009

The article incorrectly stated that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) spent $318 on catering in the Capitol Visitor Center for the Congressional Women’s Softball Game. The event occurred in the Speaker’s dining room.