Jan. 28, 2010— -- The day after President Barack Obama urged members of Congress to be more transparent about their interactions with lobbyists, the House Republican Caucus headed up Interstate 95 for a retreat where they will be able to mingle privately with… lobbyists.
The annual retreat, sponsored by a non-profit group called the Congressional Institute, is meant to be a chance for members to escape the Beltway to talk about big ideas, hear from rising stars in the party, media pundits, and even visit with President Obama, who will address the caucus Friday.
In between these work sessions, though, there will be less formal gatherings involving several of the Institute's 14-member board of directors. The vast majority of the Institute's board is made up by top Capitol Hill lobbyists whose clients include leading drug manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and such major corporations as American Express and Verizon.
Institute Executive Director Mark Strand said the entire event has been scrubbed for potential ethics problems, and everything will be done above board. He explained it this way:
"The institute's supporters, who include lobbyists, do not plan, attend or participate in any session of the annual conference. They are invited to a reception and dinner and depart the next morning," he said.
"Such a courtesy for a tax-exempt organization's supporters is commonplace and within ethical rules," Strand added. "All members of Congress who participate in the conference pay their own expenses. The Institute does not employ a lobbyist nor does it engage in lobbying."
So far, though, the receptions involving the group's lobbyists and sponsors have not been opened to the public. Mary Vought , the press secretary for the House Republican Caucus, said in an email that the speeches by the president, and by Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell would be open to the press. But not the reception and dinner.
Vought said she expects the event to provide a poignant setting for Republicans to work "on solutions to fix the failed Democrat policies enacted over the last 12 months."