Industry follows familiar road with junkets
Las Vegas' posh Bellagio resort is home to five bars, seven "fine dining" restaurants and fountains gushing choreographed displays set to music every evening.
It also was home to a cross section of Capitol Hill last year: 13 congressmen, two senators and 65 congressional staffers, plus some spouses and children, got a free trip to the luxury resort, thanks to a technology lobbying group.
The Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group with $81.4 million in assets and a $48.3 million annual budget, footed the bill for the trips to the Consumer Electronics Show. Its members include such large companies as Best Buy, Denon, Kenwood, Samsung Electronics, Royal Philips Electronics and Apple Computer.
The Arlington, Va.-based association is hardly alone among technology organizations that try to wield influence in Washington by paying for travel, according to an analysis of congressional records by CNET News.com. In 2005, the technology industry spent more than $460,000 to shuttle Congress and staff members from four key committees to conferences, company tours, meetings with executives and an assortment of other events. Many were private sessions meant for a congressional audience--essentially excuses for off-the-record lobbying--which sought to influence the views of politicians and their aides on pending legislation.
"They have become more recreational and vacation trips, in nature, than official business trips," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy21, a campaign finance reform group. "You don't find a lot of these trips going to middle America in the middle of the winter or to Florida in the middle of the summer."
Fred Wertheimer, president, Democracy21
There is nothing illegal about free travel, as long as politicians disclose it. And the technology industry, overall, spends less on such trips than do other sectors: According to numbers provided by PoliticalMoneyLine, a company that tracks political spending, tech companies spent only about 3 percent of the $17.2 million on reimbursed congressional travel over a five-year period.
Nevertheless, the recent rash of Capitol Hill scandals--from the indictment of former House of Representatives majority leader Tom Delay to guilty pleas from Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham and lobbyist Jack Abramoff--has heightened scrutiny of the infrequently scrutinized practice of free trips in general. A $70,000 trip that DeLay took to London and Scotland was allegedly paid for by pro-gambling interests, and DeLay's $106,921 trip to South Korea has come under similar scrutiny.
To estimate how often technology companies pick up the tab for members of Congress, News.com analyzed the travel records of two Senate and two House panels that deal with Internet regulation and copyright matters--subcommittees that tend to be the most important for hardware, software and e-commerce businesses to influence. (A total of 81 politicians' travel records were examined; the analysis did not review travel reimbursements to members of dozens of other congressional committees.)
Critics of corporate-funded travel warn that the practice amounts to blatant influence peddling. When a company pays for congressional guests to travel to exclusive resorts or even corporate campuses, "those are not educational experiences; those are corporations trying to get something back for their buck," said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader-founded group that favors lobbying reform.
Craig Holman, legislative representative, Public Citizen
Especially, that is, when companies pay for first-class airfare and lodging. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association paid $4,465 for airfare, $1,146 for lodging, and $157 for food for Rep. George Radanovich to travel to San Francisco for one or two days last March, according to Radanovich's disclosure report. The California Republican is a member of the House telecommunications subcommittee.
Microsoft, which leads lobbying expenditures among hardware and software companies, is one of the largest spenders on government travel as well. On at least three occasions last year, the software maker sponsored trips for staff members of four congressional subcommittees to New York, Los Angeles and its Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Microsoft declined to comment on the details of its junkets. "The high-tech industry is still a young industry, and our goal is to educate and hopefully get more to understand the importance of innovation, to see how the industry has grown over the last several years and to experience firsthand the exciting new technologies on the horizon," company spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said.
In their legally required filings about the Microsoft trips, congressional staff members described the activities as fact-finding excursions, policy briefings, company campus visits and "consumer sneak preview" meetings. In November, several staffers were invited to a launch of the company's new Xbox 360 game system, accompanied by a discussion of intellectual-property issues.
In April 2005, Microsoft paid to send one of its sometime legislative foes--Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat--to deliver a speech on telecommunications law reform in Redmond. Boucher has introduced bills that Microsoft opposes, including a proposal for taxes on certain instant-messaging services and another to rewrite the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.