On March 22, just before the budget battle began, the White House asked to meet with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
The next day, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) told reporters about the invitation, but explained that "Danny is out of the country and will be back soon."
In fact, Rostenkowski was in the middle of a planned 10-day charity golf tournament at a resort in Hawaii. The expenses, more than $2,500, were paid by the tournament's co-sponsor, Helene Curtis, the Chicago-based cosmetics firm.
Between November and April, Rostenkowski spent at least 45 days as a guest of various corporations, trade associations and individuals at such resorts as Florida's Doral Country Club, Boca Raton Hotel and Club, Turnberry Isles Yacht and Country Club, Hawaii's Kaanapali resort and the Canyon Hotel Racquet and Golf Resort in Palm Springs.
Hotel bills and air fares for his trips exceeded $10,000, all of which was picked up by his hosts. He has been paid $10,000 in speaking fees since January, and has received at least $15,000 in campaign contributions from these or affiliated groups in the past few months.
In addition, Rostenkowski, who is a member of the Professional Golfers Association Advisory Committee, has received hundreds of dollars worth of merchandise, including a watch, a radio, golf bags, a putter, a jacket, pants, luggage, a jewel case, plates and glasses.
All of these trips, gifts and related expenses are legal under House ethics rules, and are considered legitimate congressional activities if the member uses the time to learn about the legislative interests of the various groups and companies paying the way, or to inform them of his concerns.
House rules prohibit members and employes from accepting gifts worth $100 or more from any entity with a "direct interest in legislation before the Congress."
But payment of expenses for "transportation, food and lodging" are permitted where the individual "renders personal services" equal to the expenses paid by the sponsor. Such services include giving a speech and taking part "in discussion seminars." Expenses in conjunction with a "fact-finding" mission bearing "a direct relationship to official duties" also are allowed.
It is up to the member of Congress to decide if the trip is legitimate. According to an advisory opinion on the House rules, "The responsibility will rest with the member, officer or employe to determine whether the particular event or activity is intended for fact-finding purposes directly related to his official duties."
There are no specific provisions permitting travel, meals and lodging in connection with charitable golfing trips, but Harry T. Cone, chief counsel for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said such events traditionally have been considered official service for members because they "lend their prestige" to them.
"These charity events are a part of the business of being a public figure," said John Sherman, Rostenkowski's press secretary. "They are in the range of duties a member of Congress has . . . . All politicians suffer these duties and these obligations."
Virtually every group or corporation in the country has a legitimate interest in Rostenkowski's legislative decisions because of his chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, through which all tax measures pass. His position has brought him an abundance of invitations enjoyed by only the most influential members of Congress.
Sherman said such trips give the congressman an opportunity to exchange views with his legislative colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere.
"I would say, knowing what I do about politics, that an awful lot of business is done between people like that whether it's on the fifth green or a plane trip down to whatever it is . . . . An hour on a plane trip together, that's as significant as them spending 20 days together in Washington," Sherman said.
Like many congressmen, Rostenkowski often takes his wife on his trips. While a spouse's expenses are not addressed by the House rules, an advisory opinion says that "as a matter of policy" the "incentive for members to participate in meaningful programs will be diminished" if such payments are not allowed.
There is no indication that Rostenkowski will show legislative favor to his hosts. His staff members say past performance is evidence enough that such trips do not influence him.
"Dan Rostenkowski has been less swayed by special interest in how he votes than any other member I know," said John J. Salmon, chief counsel of Ways and Means. "He will listen to a lot of people, his door is always open to everybody, but the bottom line--the test for the legislator--is what you do. No one can assert any conflict or any problem with Dan Rostenkowski in what we've done."
Sherman said Rostenkowski, who has spent only nine weekends in Washington in the past 23 years, never loses touch with congressional business. " . . . He talks to his staff at least twice a day from wherever he is," Sherman said. "Fixing him geographically is not an accurate measure of whether Dan Rostenkowski knows what's going on."
While the congressman is required to disclose receipt of anything worth $250 or more, he does not have to give a breakdown of specific expenses or length of time spent on speaking engagements or participating in charity golf tournaments.
Over the past month, The Washington Post reviewed numerous public records and hotel and restaurant bills, and interviewed many of his hosts to find out how Rostenkowski spent those 45 days out of town, which amount to approximately 30 percent of the five-month period.
Doral Country Club
On Tuesday, Nov. 10, Rostenkowski and his wife checked into the Doral Country Club in Miami as guests of the National Association of Realtors. The association says it paid $1,054 for two round-trip air fares plus a $914.98 hotel bill for the five-day stay, including golf cart rental charges.
On Wednesday he spoke to the realtors and representatives of the University of Chicago; on Friday, to the Realtors Legislative Committee. In between, he flew back to Washington for a conference meeting on the Social Security minimum benefit bill. That conference was canceled, and he returned to Miami the same day.
"That was unexpected and unanticipated," recalled Albert E. Abrahams of the National Association of Realtors, which also paid for the extra trip to Washington and back. "We thought he wasn't going to be able to make it back in time, but the conference ended quickly and he was able to return to Miami."
On Nov. 16, the day after the conference ended, the Realtors PAC (political action committee) in Chicago contributed $5,000 and the National Realty PAC $500 to Rostenkowski's campaign, according to House records.
The National Association of Realtors lists in its quarterly report to the House its "legislative interests," including the "independent contractor" issue, which would determine whether real estate agents are subject to withholding tax. The matter is now before a Ways and Means subcommittee.
Salmon says Rostenkowski is considered "their number-one opponent on that bill," and that "his position remains contrary to the industry's."
The J.C. Penney Charity Golf Classic
On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the J.C. Penney Co. flew Rostenkowski first class from Chicago to Tampa to play in a two-day charity golf tournament. He and Speaker O'Neill were put up in a condominium near the Bardmoor Country Club.
"He was with me most of the time," recalled Richard C. Darling, Penney's administrator of federal government relations. Darling declined to discuss the congressman's golf game. "I'm not going to get into a sensitive area like his handicap," said Darling. "I don't mind the other questions, but you know how golfers are." Bob Hope Desert Classic
On Jan. 11 Rostenkowski flew from Chicago to Palm Springs to play in the Bob Hope Desert Classic. For much of the next two weeks he and his wife stayed with Mark Anthony, an associate of Bob Hope. From Jan. 13 to 16 he played in the pro-am segment of the tournament, and was given golf slacks, a wristwatch and a putter.
His air fare was paid by the Outdoor Advertisers Association of America, as was a two-day stay at Palm Springs' Canyon Hotel Racquet and Golf Resort. On Jan. 19 he spoke to the group and received a $2,000 honorarium. (One month later, Rostenkowski received $2,750 in political contributions from seven outdoor advertisers.)
The next day Rostenkowski conducted a hearing in Sacramento on the Reagan budget.
On Jan. 21 he spoke to the Hotel and Restaurant Employes Union, for a $2,000 honorarium. The union's political action committee had contributed $2,500 to Rostenkowski's campaign three months earlier. The union is supporting the repeal of withholding taxes on certain gambling winnings, and opposing measures to require employers to report to the Internal Revenue Service certain employes' tips paid by credit cards.
Returning from Palm Springs on Jan. 24, Rostenkowski stopped in Phoenix at The Point, as a guest of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. The next day, as Congress returned from its recess, Rostenkowski addressed the council for a $2,000 honorarium, and returned to Washington. The Distilled Spirits Political Action Committee later contributed $1,000 to Rostenkowski's campaign.
The Ways and Means Committee has substantial power over excise taxes on liquor and duties on its importation.
Turnberry Isles Yacht and Country Club
One week later, on Monday, Feb. 1, Rostenkowski and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) took off from Washington National Airport for Miami aboard a corporate jet owned by Eli Lilly & Co., which owns Elizabeth Arden cosmetics. With them were company executives.
On Feb. 2 and 3 Congress was in pro forma session, which means a quick opening and adjournment, for the record. Press secretary Sherman told reporters that Rostenkowski was too busy to speak with them. "The chairman is out of town on business," he said.
At the time Rostenkowski and Michel were playing golf at Miami's Turnberry Isles Yacht and Country Club, where Elizabeth Arden was sponsoring a charity tournament.
All costs for the trip--meals, the $542.08 hotel bill for "penthouse six," air fare and golfing fees--were paid by the cosmetics company. Rostenkowski and the other participants received transistor radios and an assortment of Elizabeth Arden products.
"Business trip is the way I classify any time he is out of town except when he's in Chicago," Sherman said. "As far as I'm concerned, any time Rostenkowski travels with any politician, it's business.
"Rostenkowski is too busy to talk to most people. He rarely sits down with any reporters," he said. "I would say he's got a schedule that would match anybody's on Capitol Hill."
Harness Track of America
One week later, on Feb. 11, Rostenkowski checked into the Doral Country Club in Miami. He was a guest of the Harness Track of America, whose annual meeting began three days after Rostenkowski's arrival. Rostenkowski's speech was Feb. 15. The cost of the trip, an estimated $1,500, was paid by the association.
On Feb. 13 Rostenkowski played golf and addressed the Speaker's Club, a group of Democratic contributors.
Two days later he gave a $2,000 speech to the Harness Tracks of America. The association entitled his talk, "A Bipartisan View of the State of the Nation in General, and Racing's Legislative Problems in Particular."
Bills before a Ways and Means subcommittee would repeal the withholding tax on certain gambling winnings. Under present law 20 percent of certain winnings over a specified amount are withheld at the track.
"Rostenkowski is very noncommittal at this time. He's taken a very wait-and-see attitude," said the association's counsel, Chris Castens.
The Harness Tracks of America represents, among others, an Illinois group called Egyptian Trotting Association. Its president, Richard A. Roggeveen, said repealing the tax would have a "significant effect" on his company's interests. Nearly a million dollars in federal withholding taxes a year is paid by bettors there.
A minority shareholder of that association is Dan Rostenkowski. His 2,500 shares are valued at about $10,400, Roggeveen said.
Committee counsel Salmon said that while the withholding issue is still technically pending it is "dead" because of opposition from the Treasury Department. Salmon said that, because Ways and Means' jurisdiction includes all revenue-raising measures, any outside financial interest could be construed as a conflict, but that Rostenkowski's Illinois stock is too insignificant to create a real conflict of interest for him.
On Feb. 26 the Rostenkowskis checked into a $225-a-day room at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club in Florida. They were guests of the Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association for six days. Rostenkowski was to speak. So was Speaker O'Neill.
On March 1 Rostenkowski gave a speech titled "Washington--One Year Later: A Congressional Inside View." It was an assessment of President Reagan's economic program.
All expenses were paid by the cosmetics group. Including three days worth of golf fees, the hotel bill came to $1,519.42, exclusive of air fare.
While in Boca Raton Rostenkowski missed several minor House votes, but arranged to have his positions recorded, though they did not count in the tallies.
On March 3 the cosmetics industry moved out of the hotel and another convention moved in: the Futures Industry Association (FIA), which represents the commodities trading industry. Now the Rostenkowskis were the guests of two of the new convention's attendees, the Commodity Exchange Inc. and the Chicago Board Of Trade.
The Rostenkowskis mananged to keep the same room. "Simple," Sherman explained. "The hotel didn't change, the convention did." Just how Rostenkowski's two hosts dovetailed their invitations is unclear. "It's just a coincidence," Sherman said.
Rostenkowski received a $2,000 honorarium for speaking at a reception and again later, Sherman said.
The hotel bill came to $1,318.93. It included a $116.48 golf fee on March 4 and a $56.16 golf fee on March 7, the day he returned to Chicago.
Twelve days later, on March 19, Rostenkowski flew to Maui, Hawaii, to play golf at the Helene Curtis Pro-Am Tournament.
Rostenkowski was invited to play because, said Helene Curtis executive Irving Koppel, "Dan's an old friend of ours, he's our congressman. Danny's been my close personal friend for 30 years. I play golf with Dan every summer . . . . I've known LaVerne Rostenkowski's wife for 30 years. She's also a personal friend." In addition, Koppel noted, individuals in the firm have contributed to Rostenkowski's campaigns over the years.
Koppel said neither he nor the firm has interest in legislation before Rostenkowski's committee. "We have never asked him for anything. He's our friend," Koppel said.
It was in the middle of this tournament that Speaker O'Neill told reporters that Rostenkowski was out of the country and would return soon to meet with the White House staff to discuss the budget.
"Of course he knew exactly where he Rostenkowski was," said O'Neill's press secretary, Chris Matthews. "He meant 'out of the country' in the sense of out of the contiguous United States . . . . He meant far away and functionally out of the country."
"I'm sure if he had been in Washington they probably would have met a little earlier," said Rostenkowski's press secretary, Sherman. " . . . These were the first tentative steps that led to full-blown negotiations . . . . If there was something that White House chief of staff James Baker very desperately wanted to get Rostenkowski's view on, we do have the telephone and both are professionals at using telephones."
Delaying the meeting until Rostenkowski's return did not set back budget negotiations, said White House aide Richard G. Darman.
On Wednesday, Rostenkowski returned for the White House meeting. LaVerne Rostenkowski remained at the resort an additional five days as a guest of Helene Curtis.