It boils down to this catch-22: Either the special interests pay, or you do.
When House Republicans begin mapping out their 2013 political and policy agenda later this week with top aides, strategists, and motivational speakers at a resort in Williamsburg, Va., they’ll spend one evening schmoozing with lobbyists for some of Washington’s biggest and most powerful interest groups.
That’s because the three-day annual getaway is financed in part by a nonprofit that relies on annual contributions of $25,000 from its corporate and trade-association members. An evening of face time with GOP lawmakers and top advisers at the policy retreat is one of the sweeteners for donating.
Three weeks later, House Democrats will huddle at a Leesburg, Va., resort for a three-day policy retreat of their own. But no lobbyists are invited to their gathering. That’s because the Democrats have spurned the use of special-interest money to finance the get-together. Instead, they’re tapping taxpayer funds to pick up part of the tab—but won’t even say how much they’re spending.
It is the tale of two retreats—and a perfect parable for the two parties’ divergent views of the world. Republicans believe they’ve found a private-sector solution that saves taxpayer money, regardless of the appearance or reality of access-buying. Democrats believe it’s a job best-suited to the government, paid for by the taxpayer.
(In both cases, the lawmakers themselves are paying for their own food, transportation, and lodging. The difference is in the financing of renting space, paying for staff to attend, covering guest speakers’ travel costs, and setting the agenda. Neither party is keen on the idea axing the out-of-town tradition.)
For 25 years, the GOP has outsourced the agenda-planning and costs for its annual retreat to the Congressional Institute.
The event cost the institute about $150,000 in 2010, the latest year for which federal tax filings are available. In 2011, 70 mostly senior House Republican staff had their costs for a weekend at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront picked up by the institute, according to congressional disclosure records compiled by Legistorm. The institute picked up almost $900 in expenses for most of the aides.
That’s taxpayer money saved, Congressional Institute President Mark Strand said.
All 13 of the institute’s board members are either current or former corporate lobbyists. The client list represents a who’s who of powerful Washington interests, including Abbott Laboratories, Altria, Amazon.com, American Express, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Hospital Association—and that’s just some of the A’s.
“Almost every nonprofit organization in Washington has supporters from the corporate world,” Strand said.
Many of the institute’s board members are former senior GOP staff, either on Capitol Hill, in the White House, or both. One board member is Brenda Becker, a legislative affairs adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney during the mid-2000s. She is now a lobbyist for Boston Scientific, a medical-device company. A tax on medical devices was one of the controversial elements of President Obama’s signature health law, which House Republicans have pushed repeatedly to repeal.
Dan Meyer, the board chairman, previously served as chief of staff to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and as President George W. Bush’s top House liaison. Now, he’s a lobbyist with the Duberstein Group, a firm whose clients in 2012 included Goldman Sachs, BP, PepsiCo, Pfizer, and General Motors. Reached by phone, Meyer declined to comment on his involvement with the Congressional Institute, referring questions to Strand.
Strand said a super-lobbyist like Meyer “doesn’t need access through an organization like ours.” “He knows everybody there,” he said. “I think he’s dedicated to helping Congress work.”
Strand said the institute does other work, including putting together books and pamphlets and organizing a chiefs-of-staff retreat. He added that the group’s lobbyist board members don’t plan—and aren’t allowed to attend—any of the House GOP’s strategy sessions. The group exists “mostly because Republicans didn’t want to use taxpayer dollars to fund their retreats,” he said.
House Democrats seem comfortable doing just that. The Democratic leadership takes a share of its budget allotment each year and uses it to pay for rooms for nonmembers at the retreat, according to a Democratic aide, as well as other ancillary costs.
How much, exactly, is an open question. James Gleeson, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, declined to say what previous years’ retreats had cost taxpayers or to estimate how much the 2013 gathering at Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg would run.
Both sides believe the other has adopted the worse model for the public they pledge to serve.
“We have a system we’re comfortable with,” institute head Strand said. “They have a system they’re comfortable with.”
This article appears in the Jan. 15, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Party Retreats Cost Big Money. Who’s Paying?.