Lobbyists Help Pay The Bill At Republican Lawmakers' Retreat

House Republicans are taking a three-day retreat this week, paid in part by a lobbyist-run institute. Members of the group get access to the lawmakers at the closed-door event on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

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House Republicans are midway through their annual retreat. The three-day get-together is happening at a waterside hotel on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Lawmakers of both parties hold this kind of annual partisan conference to map out legislative strategy. And as usual, there's some controversy over who's footing the bill for them.

Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The Republican conference is at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge, Maryland. The hotel has a championship golf course and four lighted tennis courts. But the temperature is stuck below freezing and the lawmakers have a busy schedule, including sessions on such tough issues as immigration reform and health care. They're also getting advice from a consultant on how to connect with voters. But it's the financing of the GOP retreat that regularly attracts attention. It's made possible by the Congressional Institute, a tax-exempt social welfare organization run by Republican lobbyists.

MARK STRAND: They've decided, Republicans, that they didn't want to use taxpayer dollars to do these retreats.

OVERBY: Mark Strand, the institute's president, says that was 27 years ago.

STRAND: And the Congressional Institute was formed back then and it's been attempting to help with planning and making these conferences work as effectively as possible.

OVERBY: The institute covers the event itself.

STRAND: But the members of Congress pay their own way.

OVERBY: The Congressional Institute has a board of directors, mostly veteran Republican lobbyists who also have deep experience as congressional staffers. Other lobbyists join the institute as members, and it's their contributions that underwrite the GOP retreat. The institute's lobbyist members aren't allowed in the working sessions, but Strand says they do get to mix with the lawmakers.

STRAND: The reception and the dinner of the first night they attend, which is typical for, you know, most organizations in Washington, D.C., that have support. So they just attend the reception, just the dinner, and then they go home the next morning.

OVERBY: As for the House Democrats, they're booked into the same Hyatt Regency two weeks from now. But for financing the event, they take the opposite approach.

REPRESENTATIVE XAVIER BECERRA: I can speak to what Democrats are doing. We consider this official work.

OVERBY: This is California Congressman Xavier Becerra. He chairs the Democratic caucus, which pays for its retreat out of its regular budget. That is, taxpayer dollars.

BECERRA: We consider this an opportunity to discuss issues and we consider it an opportunity to discuss issues with people who have a vote, who are officially elected to do work. We don't invite lobbyists.

OVERBY: Now, this isn't to say advocates are barred from Democratic retreats. The caucus often hears speakers from liberal think tanks and nonprofit groups. But it doesn't schmooze with lobbyists, at least not at the retreats. Ross Baker is a Rutgers University political scientist and a long-time Congress watcher. He says there are all sorts of congressional retreats.

ROSS BAKER: They're just for a variety of reasons and I think mostly it's just to kind of get out of town.

OVERBY: Not that Washington lacks for conference space.

BAKER: There seems to be a kind of refreshment factor in getting as far away from Washington as possible without going too far.

OVERBY: In fact, starting in the late 1990s, there were a series of retreats aimed at promoting civility in the House. This came after Democrats had lost their 40-year House majority and a new GOP majority had impeached President Bill Clinton. Some prominent Republicans and Democrats organized bipartisan retreats, first in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and later at The Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. The Congressional Institute was involved in the effort. But each year, attendance shrank. Baker's assessment...

BAKER: The people who showed up were people who cared about civility. And the people who probably needed to be there weren't there.

OVERBY: Not like the Republican and Democratic strategy retreats over on the Eastern Shore. These are events where the party leaders are taking roll. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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