For most Americans, August is a time for summer vacation. For members of Congress, their aides and some lobbyists, it's a time for privately sponsored junkets.
Few are as inviting as the Ripon Educational Fund excursions, which take politicians and corporate types to various European locales. While the trips are filled with serious policy discussions, they also reveal how corporate interests obtain access to lawmakers through privately sponsored travel.
This month, for example, 20 members of Congress jetted to London for a week-long visit in which they delved into such issues as trade, terrorism and foreign affairs. These politicians had no fear of getting lonely, however: More than 100 lobbyists accompanied them, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
The corporate participants included representatives from American Express, AOL Time Warner, Bristol-Myers Squibb, General Motors and Hewlett-Packard, according to the group's itinerary. Corporate sponsors must pay annual membership fees of $9,500 and fund their own trips abroad.
The congressional contingent -- which travels for free, compliments of the Ripon Educational Fund -- was an impressive one. It included Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee; Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee; Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.); and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). A bevy of top GOP aides also tagged along, including the chiefs of staff for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.), House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio).
While the Ripon Society is a Republican organization -- in favor of limited government, free-market principles, strong defense and social tolerance -- its educational fund brought along two Democrats, Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.) and Bart Gordon (Tenn.).
"It's like the U.S. Congress being moved to England," said Robert A. Rusbuldt, president of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, who went on the trip. "You have many members of Congress and all the private sector people. With the exception of a little tea in the afternoon and the lack of air conditioning, we could have been in Washington."
Dan Mattoon, a lobbyist with Podesta/Mattoon who has taken four Ripon trips, said lobbyists gain "a chance to visit with some members who you see on the run in Washington."
A lobbyist who did not go -- and asked to remain anonymous -- described the expedition as "a very hot trip. All of our clients want to try to go, but it's very expensive."
That kind of schmoozing makes some public watchdog groups uneasy.
"There's a fine line between the importance of an elected official getting a broader view of the world . . . and then trips which are really designed to give lobbyists close access to elected officials in more informal settings," said Common Cause President Chellie Pingree. "We all know entities with interests before Congress spend money to get access, and this is one more way to go about doing that."
But former representative Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), a lobbyist who chairs the Ripon Educational Fund, said the trips are issue-based and offer lobbyists no special access because they could attend the same kinds of events in Washington.
"Do they get to spend time with members having terrifically relevant intellectual and practical conversations? Yes," she said. "But they have that here."
According to past participants and those who just returned from London, the Ripon trips feature intense public policy seminars. This one featured meetings with members of Parliament and discussions on the global impact of the war in Iraq, as well as trade and tax issues.
The trip also gave participants time off to tour the city, according to those who attended, and featured elegant dinners.
One lawmaker who has gone on past Ripon trips described them as a "lot of work," saying the constant presence of lobbyists carries obligations. "There are very nice dinners, but you've got to sit with corporate types you might not feel like sitting with," the lawmaker said.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company