An article Wednesday incorrectly said that Rep. William V. (Bill) Alexander Jr. (D-Ark.) is a member of a congressional committee dealing with energy legislation.
A large Virginia coal company flew 14 Democratic members of congressional committees that oversee mining legislation to Southwestern Virginia Monday in a luxury 727 jet and paid them $2,000 each to tour its mines and to attend a discussion of energy issues and a dinner.
The House members were presented the $2,000 honorariums because "members of Congress, taking the time to do something like this, expect to get some compensation for it," said Rep. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Va.), who helped arrange the trip.
Boucher issued invitations for the one-day trip on his congressional letterhead on behalf of United Coal Co., which is based in Bristol in his Southwestern Virginia district. He defended the trip yesterday, saying House members "cast votes on legislation that affects the coal industry, yet most have no firsthand knowledge of the coal industry or have never talked to coal executives."
House ethics rules permit the payment of up to $2,000 in honorariums to members for "personal appearances, articles, speeches and similar services," payments that have drawn the condemnation of some groups.
"The honoraria system allows special interest groups to put large amounts of cash directly in the pockets of members of Congress," said Common Cause spokesman Randy Huwa. "People talk about PACs [political action committees], but at least they give money to campaigns. This is money going directly to members for their personal use."
Payment for "appearances is not a common practice . . . but it appears to be increasing," he said.
Sen. William D. Proxmire (D-Wis.) a critic of honorariums, said during a recent Senate debate that members could even collect honorariums for attending short breakfast meetings.
Two of the congressmen who took the Virginia trip said yesterday they found it valuable and saw nothing improper with the payments.
"It's a way of encouraging members to do something like that. Members have a tremendous demand on their time," said Rep. James C. Slattery (D-Kan.).
Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) agreed. "We spoke about the issues all day with company people," he said. "It's a question of someone getting their point across.
"My views on these issues are pretty clear," he said, noting that he cosponsored acid-rain legislation that would restrict sulfur emissions from coal-burning plants.
The congressman also defended his honorarium, citing a daylong schedule that included tours of a deep mine, surface mine and coal preparation plant, and a panel discussion with coal industry executives.
Boucher mentioned the payment in his April 29 invitation, saying: "United is offering a $2,000 honorarium for your participation in the visit and panel discussion."
He also told the lawmakers they would be traveling in United Coal's Boeing 727 -- "a truly outstanding custom designed aircraft which I think you will enjoy" -- and enclosed a color brochure of the aircraft's "Statesman's Salon/Dining Area," wet bar and executive stateroom.
Wayne Bell, senior vice president of United Coal, played down the firm's role in the trip. "Congressman Boucher really arranged the tour," Bell said yesterday. "We didn't have that much to do with it. Boucher's thought was that it would be helpful to have members of Congress familiarize themselves" with the coal industry.
Bell said the firm paid for the transportation, food and honorariums.
Boucher, a 39-year-old lawyer who is in his second term, said he invited 20 House members, mostly members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over numerous coal industry issues. Among the bills before the energy committee that the legislators discussed are measures that could result in lower rail rates for coal companies and regulating sulfur emissions.
Other congressmen on the trip included a member of the House leadership; one from the House Appropriations Committee, which controls future funding for a $400 million coal research program that has provided a grant to United Coal; and a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, the tax-writing committee.
Boucher said that developing support on the Ways and Means Committee is crucial because the coal industry would be badly hurt if the House-passed tax overhaul becomes law. The bill would repeal capital gains treatment for coal royalties, and change the coal depletion allowance, investment tax credits and depreciation allowance.
Slattery said he believes it is vital for him, as a junior member of the energy and Budget committees, to get out of Washington and learn as much about the energy industry as possible. "I'm a swing vote on many key questions."
Most members who went on the trip could not be reached for comment.
Members of the energy committee on the trip, all Democrats, included Reps. Wyden, Jim Bates (Calif.), John W. Bryant (Tex.), Wayne Dowdy (Miss.), Mickey Leland (Tex.), William B. Richardson (N.M.), Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), Gerry E. Sikorski (Minn.), and W.J. (Billy) Tauzin (La.).
Also on the trip were Democratic Reps. William V. (Bill) Alexander Jr. (Ark.), deputy majority whip; Ronald Coleman (Tex.), a member of the Appropriations Committee, and Brian J. Donnelly (Mass.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee.