Ethics group questions who picked up tab for lawmaker lunches

Al Kamen
Columnist January 8, 2013

The House members’ dining room is a lovely space. Cloth napkins, good service, and while the food’s not exactly haute cuisine, the room is 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 barring 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 matter of pursuing reelection.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

But according to a report by 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 Commission covering the last two election cycles as “campaign”or “political,” CREW found.

Among current members, Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) reported spending $1,255 on such meals; Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), $801; Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), $493; Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), $306; Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.), $276; Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), $150; Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) $87; Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), $80; Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), $75; and Rep. Mike D. 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.” Other campaigns apparently use a similar coding system, which is fine, but the tricky part is that no matter who picks up the tab, the business at hand can’t be about campaigning.

“The congressman has never used the members’ dining room for any unofficial business,” spokeswoman Lorraine Carrasco explained by 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 as if politics could have been on the menu. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), for example, spent $334 on meals described in filings as “donor development,” the report found.

A spokeswoman said that 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 the just-unseated Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), 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 as though lawmakers should heed the warnings of advice gurus who suggest that polite topics at the table don’t include sex, religion . . . or, most important, politics.

After Brennan

Now that Obama counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has been tapped to be CIA director — and the odds of his confirmation look quite good — speculation has begun as to who might replace him in the White House.

The most obvious pick would be Mike Vickers , now undersecretary of defense for intelligence and, before that, assistant secretary for Special Operations and low-intensity conflict.

A former Special Forces officer and CIA operative, Vickers is best known for his role arming the Afghan resistance fighters against the Soviet army in the 1980s. He had also been on the list of those considered to be CIA director.

There are other possibilities. For example, there’s Matt Olsen , who’s now head of the National Counterterrorism Center — though he’s been in that job only since August 2011.

Olsen ran the Guantanamo Bay task force in 2009, charged with figuring out what to do with each detainee there and where they might go. He has also been general counsel for National Security Agency.

Another name being heard is Leslie Ireland , a career intelligence officer and former national intelligence officer for Iran. She’s now assistant secretary of the Treasury for intelligence and analysis. She is said to have impressed President Obama before his first inauguration, when she was tasked with giving him his daily intel briefing.

Recount!

Congress’s vote Friday to formally accept the electoral college’s Dec. 17 vote certified the president’s reelection victory, by 332 votes to 206, over Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

And the final popular percentage showed Obama at 51.06 percent to Romney’s 47.21 percent, according to Cook Political Report guru David Wasserman.

The spread of nearly four points is bigger than most polls were showing just before the election.

It turns out that the New York Times’ Nate Silver, so often excoriated by Romney supporters for his analyses that showed Obama comfortably ahead, actually low-balled the final percentage spread by nearly 1.5 points.

Real Clear Politics — weighed down by Rasmussen Reports and Gallup, whose final tallies each showed Romney winning by 1 point — had Obama with a razor-thin 0.7-point lead.

Obama’s popular-vote totals, the history buffs point out, mark the first time since President Dwight Eisenhower’s reelection in 1956 that anyone has received more than 51 percent of the popular vote twice. (President Ronald Reagan no doubt would have done so but for John Anderson’s third-party candidacy in 1980, when Reagan got 50.7 percent of the vote to oust President Jimmy Carter.)

For Loop contest entrants, we will pay the penalty for ignoring Wasserman’s advice not to announce winners and sending out T-shirts while New York was still counting.

Now we’ll have to go back through the entries and see whether the final tally produces additional winners.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop
. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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