In 2007, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act which was a bill aimed at limiting the gifts lobbyists could give to legislators. However, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that equated money to free speech, special interests have found a workaround to the 2007 law and are able to treat lawmakers to trips to posh vacation spots and fine food and drink.
In an excellent bit of reporting by Eric Lipton in The New York Times, the loophole is explained, “Political campaigns and so-called leadership PACs controlled by the lawmakers now pay the expenses for the catering and the lawmakers’ lodging at these events — so they are not gifts — with money collected from the corporate executives and lobbyists, who are still indirectly footing the bill.” So rather than pay directly for the legislators’ travel and accommodations, the special interest groups donate the money to Political Action Committee instead.
These are often profitable ventures for lawmakers. Lipton suggests that an event that cost $25,000 will often net the PAC or reelection campaign three times as much. This is a practice that transcends party lines. Extra-liberal Democrats and the most down-home Tea Partier are both equally likely to be found in a penthouse suite on some beach or a ski resort on snow-capped mountains glad-handing special interest lobbyists.
Members of Congress spend many hours of each day fund-raising for reelection and these trips offer the opportunity for a significant deposit into campaign coffers. Perhaps that is the saddest part of this whole story, not that this practice is legal but that it is necessary if a legislator wants to have any real chance at reelection. Also, since this is part of the established system, what chance does the legislator’s constituency have to be heard when their representative’s attention comes at such a high price?