New rules don't cut off power trips

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The contract for the fundraiser mentioned in this story specified 137 rooms. That number represents some rooms rented for multiple nights. After this report was broadcast, Representative Hoyer's office called to clarify that "more than 60 lobbyists" will attend the event.

KAI RYSSDAL: Almost three years ago, Marketplace started looking into abuses of privately-sponsored congressional travel. Lawmakers and Capitol Hill staffers taking trips, sometimes really nice ones, paid for by lobbyists and interest groups.

Since then, we've uncovered more than $55 million worth of trips to just about every resort imaginable. So we were paying attention last month when the House and Senate proposed new rules to govern their getaways.

The House Ethics Committee announced today exactly how those rules will work. But Marketplace's Steve Henn reports some newly elected leaders in Congress started planning their latest trips before the ink was even dry.


STEVE HENN: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer

of Maryland is a Democratic powerbroker. Last year, Hoyer campaigned hard on ethics reforms. And in the wake of several scandals, harangued Republicans in the house.

STENY HOYER: The greed and flagrant absues of convicted felons, former Republican member Duke Cunningham and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, hang over this House like a dark cloud.

It was former Majority Leader Tom Delay's golf trip to Scotland — courtesy of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff — that inspired many recent reforms.

Still, that hasn't stopped Congressman Hoyer from planning his own lobbyist-financed, springtime getaway. He's headed to the Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort and Spa in Puerto Rico.

But Hoyer's golfing trip — scheduled to begin May 2nd — is completely legal, because it will be a fundraiser for the congressman's political action committee, or leadership PAC.

The resort's promotion video sure makes it sound fun:

TAPE PROMO VIDEO: Whether you are here for business or pleasure, prepare yourself for a sensual awakening.

But it's Hoyer's power in Congress that makes lobbyists quiver.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: That's why lobbyists do this.

Joan Claybrook

is the president of Public Citizen.

CLAYBROOK: I just don't think members of Congress should be pulling lobbyists together to do this. Even for campaign events.

Despite the Democrats' promise to end lobbyist-financed vacations, there are big loopholes.

This is the way the leadership PAC loophole works: Hoyer's guests give thousands of dollars to his PAC. Because there are few restrictions on how PAC money can be spent, Hoyer's PAC uses some of the cash to pay for the congressman's trip to Puerto Rico. The PAC also provides entertainment, golf, even nifty little gifts bags for all the guests.

The lobbyists and donors who have supplied the cash for this party then pay their own way to Puerto Rico. And in return for their generosity, they get to golf and hang with the congressman in the Caribbean.

Hoyer's PAC has booked 137* rooms for his May event. Lobbyists who didn't want to be named tell us it will be a blast.

It may not look good, but it is legal, and well within congressional ethics rules.

MELANIE SLOAN: This is a very convoluted thing that most people will never be able to understand the difference, frankly.

Melanie Sloan is the executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

SLOAN: There's a very big difference between money that is campaign funds spent on travel and other kinds of official travel.

While Tom Delay's golfing trip to Scotland was supposed to be educational, Hoyer's golfing trip to Puerto Rico is all about money.

Lavish campaign fundraising trips rake in cash. Which was why these trips were not curtailed when congress rewrote its ethics rules.

Congressman Hoyer and his staff all declined to be interviewed on tape for this story. But even reformers like Joan Claybrook acknowledge that as the second-ranking Democrat in the House, Hoyer is expected to raise enourmous amounts of money to defend Democratic congressional seats.

CLAYBROOK: You've got to raise money to stay in power. And it's a terrible system and we abhor it. But that's what we have today.

Hoyer is not the only member of Congress who's raising money this way. But ethics advocate Melanie Sloan says unlike many others Hoyer signed a pledge last year promising to change this system — clean up congressional travel, and support publicly financed campaigns.

SLOAN: The Democrats are quite cognizant of the fact that they won the House back in large part on ethics issues. And they know that they have to put their money where their mouths are. And they have to deliver something.

If they don't, Sloan predicts they'll have big problems in the next election.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.


About the author

Steve Henn was Marketplace’s technology and innovation reporter for the entire portfolio of Marketplace programs until December 2011.

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