Wanted: Hotel/conference center large enough to accommodate several hundred members of Congress, spouses, lobbyists, staff and reporters for a three-day retreat. Must be within a few hours of Washington. Must have nice amenities but also look low-rent when shown on the network news. Please respond to House Democratic Caucus, U.S. Capitol, Washington.
The 1980s must really be over. For the second year in a row, House Democrats have decided not to hold their annual issues retreat at their traditional site, The Greenbrier, the stately resort hotel located in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
Fearing another public relations disaster like the one two years ago when they went to the Greenbrier amid a bitter public fight over a proposed 51 percent congressional pay raise, Democrats have been scouring the mid-Atlantic region for a suitable alternate location.
Leaders of the party caucus tentatively have decided to hold the retreat this year in March at the Williamsburg Inn, where it will be harder for critics to use the setting to be snide about the Democrats pushing tax fairness while partying at a posh resort and harder to raise once again the issue of congressional pay (House members go up to $125,000 in January).
This year's event, said one Democratic aide, will be "less frilly" than the usual Greenbrier weekend.
The internal party debate over whether and where to hold their annual conference is indicative of continued sensitivity on the part of Democratic House leaders to the pasting they took in 1989 and to the continued public displeasure with Congress that is manifested in the growing drive to set term limits on federal lawmakers.
Democrats are not eager to repeat the experience of two years ago, when press accounts of their weekend focused almost entirely on the pay issue and included footage of lawmakers playing tennis at the Greenbrier and of protesters chanting "greedy little members" as lawmakers boarded their train at Union Station.
That anxiety was compounded by an ABC-TV "Prime Time Live" report this fall on a taxpayer-paid trip by members of the House Ways and Means Committee to Barbados. The highly critical report accused the lawmakers of doing little official work during their several days on the Caribbean island, and included home video footage of them relaxing on the beach with lobbyists for industries regulated by the committee.
As a result, Democratic caucus Chairman Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) has had to rethink his proposal from last year that the caucus continue the Greenbrier tradition, but only every other year following House elections. Last year, the party caucus held a stripped-down session that included only lawmakers and a few staffers and outside experts at a conference center in Columbia, Md.
This year's version, said a Hoyer spokesman, will be a "family kind of event" that will be less costly than the usual Greenbrier weekend and will not be attended by the scores of lobbyists who usually come. However, the lobbyists will still underwrite part of the cost of the weekend through their contributions to a foundation that arranges the retreat.