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$500K spent on Dem caucus retreats
By Susan Crabtree
Posted: 02/03/09 07:10 PM [ET]
The House Democratic Caucus spent more than $500,000 in taxpayer money over the past five years for its annual retreats at resorts in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
On Thursday, Democrats will head to the Kingsmill Resort and Spa in historic Williamsburg, Va., for the three-day planning powwow. The resort boasts multiple championship golf courses, a full-service spa and six restaurants.
Individual lawmakers pay for most of the expenses related to retreat lodging through their campaign committees, but the Democratic Caucus subsidizes some of the costs for what aides consider “official business” — to the tune of nearly $100,000 each year, according to a Democratic aide involved in retreat planning.
For instance, the caucus picks up the hefty transportation tab, as well as the thousands of dollars in expenses each year for guest speakers, food and entertainment, according to financial disbursement records.
Democratic leadership sources were reluctant to talk about any aspect of the trip, but they defended it as an important planning session for the entire country.
“This retreat is strategic planning for the country,” said Democratic Caucus spokeswoman Emily Barocas. “The president, vice president and three Cabinet secretaries will be meeting with the caucus to plan the direction we are taking the country in.”
The topic is particularly sensitive this year after several Democratic lawmakers slammed American International Group (AIG) executives for spending more than $440,000 at a company retreat in Monarch Beach, Calif., just days after the federal government bailed the company out with $85 billion in taxpayer funds.
Several Democratic lawmakers also excoriated banking and financial companies for flying in corporate jets to Washington to testify before several committees about their need for billions more in bailout money.
Williamsburg hardly compares to a balmy beach destination, but in the past five years, some of the retreat expenses jump off the page.
In 2004, for instance, the caucus paid more than $27,000 to Executive Jet Management for a chartered flight for Bill Clinton, who addressed the issues conference. A Democratic aide said costs soared for Clinton’s travel because there was a “horrible blizzard” that caused his plane to become stuck two days longer than expected and the caucus had to spend extra money for de-icing and storing the plane.
In 2005, the caucus cut a $1,100 check to retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s consulting firm for a speaking fee. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s firm received $864 in 2003 for her retreat address.
Besides Obama, Biden and three other Cabinet secretaries, Democrats this year are hosting Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who will talk about stimulating the economy through technology and innovation.
In the past, the caucus has also paid for food and after-hours entertainment. In 2003, for example, the Caucus spent $11,200 on food and $6,900 on entertainment. Costs for renting conference rooms at the resorts also make up a large chunk of the total. In 2004, the caucus spent at least $15,000 on space rental.
Democrats spend the most money, however, on transportation.
Since 2005, the caucus has chartered an Amtrak train to ferry members to the Kingsmill resort. It costs roughly $70,000 each year for the Amtrak charter. Democratic aides argue it’s necessary so that members can spend time together and not end up taking separate cars and arriving at staggered times. Traveling by train also helps ensure the safety of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who is second in the line of succession to the presidency and requires constant security detail. In this case, the source said, security helicopters fly above the train.
In 2003 and 2004, the caucus used chartered flights and rented cars and buses to transport members to the Nemacolin resort in Woodlands, Pa. The chartered flight cost more than $10,000 and the buses were $6,500, but the hassles weren’t worth it: One year, a Democratic aide recalls, the buses broke down and closed down an entire highway.
Democrats and Republicans have criticized each other for the way each party pays for its annual retreat. Republicans huddled at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, W.Va., last week. The Congressional Institute, a nonprofit that pays for activities at least in part through dues from lobbyists, subsidizes the GOP retreat. Republicans also allow members of the institute’s private sector advisory board, many of whom are lobbyists, to travel to the resort each year for a dinner with the members.
Democrats don’t allow lobbyists at the retreat, but Republicans criticize the use of taxpayer dollars for expenses for retreats at resorts, especially during the economic downturn.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, said she believes it’s useful for members to gather in a setting away from Capitol Hill once a year. Still, she said, when the economy is suffering and people are losing their jobs, members must be mindful to scale back and not use taxpayer dollars for luxury items.
“I actually think there is utility in meeting together once a year to concentrate on getting everyone to row their oars in the same direction,” she said. “But how much money is spent this year and the scope of it and how many frills there are is important. It sends a message on how seriously members are taking the economic problems when people are being laid off left and right. Unlike Michael Phelps, [lawmakers] are indeed role models.”
Common Cause’s Sarah Dufendach said she would rather have taxpayer money than special-interest money funding retreats. But she said this year, both Republicans and Democrats would have been better served by having their retreat locally at a place such as the Library of Congress.
“It would have been really good PR for both sides to stay home and bring a box lunch,” she said.
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