After just two days back in session following a three-week break, House Republicans left the Capitol today to attend the GOP's annual retreat in Baltimore, Md. But they're not the only ones leaving Washington behind this weekend.
Helping finance the getaway are some of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, who are paying $25,000 for personal access to the GOP retreat, which this year is dubbed "Congress of Tomorrow."
This afternoon, Republicans packed their bags, boarded buses and followed a police escort 40 miles to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where a slate of private events is planned for lawmakers over the next three days at the Marriot Waterfront hotel.
The lobbyists' donations do not go directly to the Republican Party but instead are paid to the retreat's sponsors, the Congressional Institute - a non-partisan, not-for-profit corporation that has planned the event for 24 years.
Although attendance to most of the activities is restricted to members of Congress and their staff, lobbyists for corporations and associations that financially support the Congressional Institute are invited to join legislators at a reception and dinner Thursday night.
Some Republicans contend that the presence of lobbyists does not necessarily sway lawmakers into any explicit course of action, but rather their input could be useful to help educate members on various issues.
"These people want to pay to be there. They can talk to us," Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said. "I'm sure that there are key business leaders and things of that nature that want to talk to us about tax policy or regulatory policy and we listen to them. That doesn't mean that I have to come back here and start to develop a legislative agenda to meet their needs."
A spokeswoman for the House Republican Conference emphasized that lobbyists are not allowed to attend any planning sessions.
The retreat "provides members an opportunity to come together to discuss goals for the coming year and design a plan to achieve them," said Shannon McGahn, director of communications for the House Republican Conference. "The planning sessions are open only to members of Congress, staff, their family, and staff from the Institute - not their donors."
McGahn also said that members of Congress pay their own travel, lodging and food at the retreat, unlike the House Democrats' Issues Conference, which is paid for by the American taxpayer. The Congressional Institute, she said, "receives dues from members and has hosted this retreat for many years so that taxpayers aren't burdened with the cost."
Boarding a bus at the Capitol, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House Republican Conference chairman, said that members are heading to Baltimore "unified about getting jobs to Americans."
"As the president's been in office for three years, we see the worse unemployment since the Great Depression. We see small business start-ups at about a 17-year low, and one in seven on food stamps. So regardless of his best efforts and best intentions, [President Obama's] policies have failed," Hensarling, R-Texas, said. "It's a new year. It's time to try something new. I hope the president will start to try a new policy."
"This is a destiny-shaping year in America and essentially for all of humanity," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said as he boarded another bus. "I hope that ours is a humble attitude and a diligent heart that we can try to find things that are good for the country and good for our fellow human beings."
According to its website, the Congressional Institute is "dedicated to helping members of Congress better serve their constituents and helping their constituents better understand the operations of the national legislature." The Institute also sponsors the Annual Congressional Art Competition and debates, among other projects. The non-profit corporation pays for expenses of congressional staff who attend as well as other costs like audio/visual equipment and the travel of guest speakers. Any aides who attend must receive permission from the House Ethics Committee and disclose of all costs.
Mark Strand, the Congressional Institute's president and a former chief of staff to former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., said he - not lobbyists - helps set the schedule and secures pre-approval for the agenda from the House Ethics Committee.
"The Institute works closely with the House Republican Conference to make sure our agenda addresses the needs and concerns of the Members," Strand wrote in an email to ABC. "The Institute's supporters do not plan, attend or participate in any session of the annual conference. Only staff from the Institute are present to help manage the program sessions."
Among the activities this weekend, members will hear speeches from former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and a keynote address by New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie. None of the retreat's seminars are open to the press.
A House Democratic aide said that lobbyists are not invited to the House Democrats' Issues Conference next week in Cambridge, Md.