Industry follows familiar road with junkets
The biggest funders of tech-related trips last year were trade associations with well-attended annual conferences and large companies with generous lobbying budgets.
For total travel expenditures dating back to 2000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, CEA and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association are among the 30 biggest spenders. Microsoft, AT&T and the U.S. Telecom Association were all in the top 100.
Last March, SBC Communications (now AT&T) ferried at least 17 congressional staff members to San Diego for a seminar that explored telecommunications policy issues. Lodging, food and airfare expenses generally cost about $1,500 per person for the jaunt, which lasted three or four days, depending on individual attendance.
AT&T wouldn't elaborate on the private meeting. "The telecom industry is rapidly evolving and technically complex. Therefore, we always strive to educate policymakers on the dynamics of our industry," spokeswoman Claudia Jones said. "Details of our activities are filed, as required."
Staff members, rather than the politicians themselves, were the most frequent recipients of funding last year. On average, they took as many as seven sponsored trips for every one accepted by their bosses in the Senate and as many as five such trips in the House.
Bruce Josten, VP, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Both the House and the Senate generally permit their members and staffers to accept free travel. They do, however, have to be active participants in the event they're attending--a speaker or roundtable participant is sufficient--or claim that attendance aligns with their "official duties." A spouse or child can also tag along at the private funder's expense.
According to the rules, politicos and their aides are allowed to accept only "reasonable" expenses for transportation, lodging and meals. That means that golf, tickets to the opera or other "recreational" activities are supposed to be off-limits, unless they're valued at less than $50. Even then, the annual cap for all gifts to a member or staffer is $100. Full disclosure of all such expenses within 30 days is mandatory.
Politicians and their aides aren't supposed to bill lobbyists for any of those costs--directly, that is.
So Jack Krumholz, Microsoft's director of federal-government affairs and one of the company's several registered lobbyists, cannot write the check for a politician's trip. Microsoft itself, however, can.
That amounts to a sizable loophole: Lobbyists are still able to orchestrate the trips, arrange sponsorship by companies and even accompany politicians on the plane.
"It's not a real restriction because it is invariably the company that is going to pay for the trip, not the lobbyist, so if the lobbyist can do everything but pay for the trip and can arrange for the company to pay for the trip, it's the same thing as if you didn't have any restrictions," Wertheimer of Democracy21 said.
Outright ban seen as solution
Advocates in Wertheimer's camp generally support an outright ban on privately funded trips. They say that if politicians really need to take an educational trip, the government should be paying their way.
At least five proposals have been announced that would curb this practice or require increased disclosure. One measure, offered by Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, would have banned nearly all privately funded travel. It failed by a vote of 44 to 55 on March 8.
Another proposal, drafted by Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott, is awaiting a vote. It allows lobbyists to continue to buy meals for politicians or their aides, as long as they're disclosed, and it also requires that the names of registered lobbyists who came on a junket be revealed, except if it would "adversely affect national security."
Bruce Josten, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the travel system works only if it has balance. Corporations and trade groups should be allowed to sponsor educational trips, he said, but multiple perspectives on legislation should be included to be fair.
"I don't think anybody would suggest 535 members of Congress have a comprehensive understanding of anything and everything they're going to legislate on," Josten said. The important thing, he said, is for such events to be "no-holds barred, where you're not trying to promote a viewpoint."