The House members’ dining room is a lovely space. Cloth napkins, good service, and while the food’s not exactly haute cuisine, it’s nice for lunches with colleagues, constituents — or, problematically, campaign donors.
Members of Congress frequently eat meals there that they list in federal filings as “campaign” or “political” expenses, apparently counter to House rules forbidding them from conducting their campaign business on House property, according to an upcoming report. That rule — the same one that sends lawmakers scurrying from their offices to nearby rental spaces to make fundraising calls — is designed to keep taxpayer-funded, official business separate from the dirtier pursuit of reelection.
But according to a report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, it appears that lawmakers may frequently mix the two over repasts in the members’ dining room. A dozen current and former House members described meals there in filings with the Federal Election(s) Commission covering the last two election cycles as “campaign”or “political,” CREW found.
Among current members, the campaign of Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) spent $1,255 on such meals; Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) $801; Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) $493; Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) $306; Rep. Alan Nunalee (R-Miss.) $276; Rep. Lincon Diaz-Bialart (R-Fla.) $150; Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) $87; Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) $80; Rep. Spencer Bachus (RAla.) $75; and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) $69.
The Loop contacted all offices for comment and some explained that there’s a problem of semantics, not ethics. Cuellar’s spokeswoman, for example, said the congressman’s campaign codes all meals paid for on the campaign credit card as “campaign meals,” regardless of the subjects discussed. Other campaigns apparently use a similar coding systems.
“The Congressman has never used the Members Dining Room for any unofficial business,” spokeswoman Lorraine Carrasco explained in an e-mail. “All expenditures to the Members Dining Room were for meals for interns, staff, constituents, and visiting dignitaries in the performance of the Congressman’s duties as a Federal officeholder.”
A Wittman spokeswoman called the charge an “oversight” and said it would be corrected.
Still more members’ FEC filings described meals paid for by their campaigns in language that sounds like politics could have been on the menu. Among the 146 campaign and political action committees that spent money at the members’ dining room, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), for example, spent $334 on meals described in filings as “donor development,” the report found.
A spokeswoman said there had been a “clerical error”and that they should have been slugged “social events with constituents” — a perfectly fine use of campaign money.
CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan says the amount of campaign money spent in the dining room — some in apparent contravention of the ban — shows there’s little oversight or enforcement.
“There’s little incentive to follow the rules because no one is watching,” she says.
The research was inspired by former Rep. Sylvestre Reyes (D-Texas) who was dinged last year by the House Ethics Committee for taking what was described as “campaign meals” in the exclusive restaurant.
Mislabeling aside, it sounds like lawmakers should heed the warnings of advice gurus who warn that polite topics at the table don’t include sex, religion... or, most importantly, politics.