By LARRY MARGASAK and SHARON THEIMER
On a sunny Tuesday, House members who belong to the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus left suits and ties behind, grabbed shotguns and headed for the firing range.
In a Washington equivalent of "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," more than a dozen lawmakers took advantage of a light schedule at the Capitol to play hooky.
The lawmakers got expert shooting advice from Olympic double trap champion Kim Rhode while they mingled with representatives of the outdoor-sports industry who footed the bill for the "Great Congressional Shoot-Out" and barbecue.
There was no public accounting for the special interest money. No talk about votes or hearings back at the Capitol. Just the hollers of "pull" and the pop, pop, pop of shotguns aiming for clay targets flying through the sun-filled sky.
The sportsmen’s caucus is one of hundreds of informal lawmaker clubs that have sprung up in the Capitol to advocate special causes with little public accountability.
Congress has allowed the caucuses to be affiliated with foundations that can raise unlimited amounts of money from special interests to finance social events and activities without having to disclose expenses or donations — as lawmakers must for campaigns, political action committee and other groups.
That means no scrutiny by ethics enforcers, campaign finance regulators or the public.
The Associated Press surveyed Congress, identifying more than 500 such clubs and their members. Caucus events financed by special interests ranged from golf tournaments to Caribbean trips, AP found.
SPECIAL INTEREST SCHMOOZING
The caucuses offer companies, interest groups and their lobbyists an opportunity to schmooze lawmakers out of public sight. Usually, all it takes is money. Some groups include:
• The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation rounded up gunmakers Beretta and Winchester, the National Rifle Association, Wal-Mart and outfitters Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops to sponsor the shootout, according to the invitation.
• At a recent Congressional Hispanic Caucus golf outing, Rep. Nick Rahall (news, bio, voting record) II, D-W.Va., hit the course with a lobbyist for the Teamsters union and a retired admiral who heads the Nuclear Energy Institute.
"It wasn’t an accident," Rahall said of the pairing of his threesome. The lawmaker hails from an energy-producing state where Teamsters are influential.
• The Congressional Internet Caucus lets high-tech and Internet companies like AT&T, Google and Microsoft serve on an advisory committee, giving industry a chance to bend lawmakers’ ears and show off their latest technology.
• The sugar growers’ lobby credits its access to the House Sugar Caucus and the Senate Sweetener Caucus for helping to maintain quotas that keep cheaper foreign sugar out of the U.S. market.
"In the past 10 years we have steadily been building momentum, and I think certainly having a caucus out there having leaders telling our good story is one of the reasons why," said Phillip Hayes of the American Sugar Alliance.
ADVANTAGES FOR LAWMAKERS
Any member of Congress can form a caucus simply by writing a "Dear Colleague" letter inviting others to join.
The caucuses bring like-minded politicians together to promote particular issues. The groups also can aid lawmakers’ fundraising connections, raise their profiles on issues that affect politically powerful interests back home and provide hobnobbing with celebrities or recreation that costs them nothing.
Rep. Mike McIntyre (news, bio, voting record), D-N.C., boasts membership in 98 such clubs. At least 189 lawmakers belong to a dozen or more, an Associated Press survey of Congress found.
Sen. Conrad Burns (news, bio, voting record), a member of 18 caucuses, said he joined the Sweetener Caucus at the behest of sugar beet growers in his state.
"I don’t think I’ve ever attended," Burns, R-Mont., said of caucus meetings. "I do what my growers tell me. I know we grow a lot of sugar beets in Montana."
Rep. David Obey (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., has nothing to do with caucuses. He said some lawmakers use them "to cover their tails" and hide their voting records.
"People will vote for a budget resolution that blocks your ability to provide decent funding for health or education, and then join a caucus or write some letter on behalf of a program for some disease," he said.
Government watchdog Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, wants caucuses to disclose their activities and finances.
"Members often create caucuses around particular interests or specific legislative goals," he said. "They’re bound to attract the special interests that have policy concerns in that area. And they create opportunities for financial help, for campaign contributions to those members."
Lawmakers tout caucus memberships to prospective donors.
Arkansas Democratic Rep. Marion Berry (news, bio, voting record)’s campaign noted on a fundraising invitation that he is chairman of the Blue Dog Task Force on Health, Education and Welfare. A fundraising flier for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (news, bio, voting record), D-Md., billed him as vice chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus.
THE CELEBRITY DRAW
Some caucuses involve more obscure industry issues. To raise their profiles, some use star power.
NASCAR great Richard Petty posed for photos with lawmakers as he visited Capitol Hill on behalf of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, which holds a Washington rally every other year attended by lawmakers in the Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus.
Legislation that would let trade associations such as SEMA offer health insurance is among the group’s priorities. So is heading off new federal regulation.
Many of the businesses that make race car parts belong to SEMA. Their message to Washington: "We’re good guys. … We don’t bother you, you don’t bother us," Petty said. "Just realize we’re trying to make a living."
Members of the Congressional Arts Caucus were lobbied by singer Carole King, who pushed for more arts funding with a performance.
Arts Caucus and Entertainment Caucus members got to hobnob with stars, including actors George Wendt of "Cheers" and Patty Duke and her son, "Lord of the Rings" actor Sean Astin.
"We realize we live in a society that is drawn to celebrities," said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, which sponsors such events. "We try and use the power of the entertainment industry to shine a spotlight on issues of social importance."
That group’s issues include tax breaks for production companies that make movies and TV shows, more arts funding and opposition to government indecency regulations.
KEEPING THE PUBLIC AWAY
Some caucuses and their affiliated groups, including the Sportsmen’s Foundation, try to keep the public and press away from events where lawmakers mingle with lobbyists.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute refused AP access to its spring golf tournament at Andrews Air Force Base, home of the president’s Air Force One jet. From the base golf shop, lawmakers could be seen getting into golf carts with lobbyists.
The event’s sponsors included sportswear maker Nike, drug industry lobby PhRMA, The Coca-Cola Company, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The parent company of Philip Morris, Altria, paid for breakfast, and AT&T sponsored golf carts.
Signs identifying golf pairings listed Rep. Ed Pastor (news, bio, voting record), D-Ariz., playing with representatives of Strategic Impact and Pinnacle West Capital Corp., while Rep. Joe Baca (news, bio, voting record), D-Calif. played with two Coca-Cola officials.
Baca, Pastor and Hispanic Caucus Chairman Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
LAWMAKERS AS LOBBYISTS: KATRINA AND THE CASINOS
Lawmakers often serve as lobbyists to sway colleagues on issues important to their caucuses.
When Congress was considering reconstruction aid after Hurricane Katrina, anti-gambling lawmakers opposed giving any money to casinos on the Gulf Coast.
The Congressional Gaming Caucus, led by Nevada House members Jim Gibbons, a Republican, and Democrat Shelley Berkley, began pressing fellow lawmakers to include the casinos.
The caucus forged a compromise. Hotels with casinos received recovery aid to help rebuild the lodging portions of their complexes.
Berkley said she’s proud to serve as co-chair of the Gaming Caucus, which lets her introduce executives from her former industry to colleagues.
"When I was chairman of the board of the Nevada Hotel/Motel Association, a lot of middle management gaming executives were members of my board. They are running these hotels now. My relationship is up close and personal," she said.
Berkley benefits from the relationship with a political fundraiser every other year at a Las Vegas hotel.
TALES OF THE CARIBBEAN
Caucuses can offer a range of perks, including travel to resorts.
Rep. Donald Payne (news, bio, voting record), co-chairman of the Caribbean Caucus, made at least 14 trips to Caribbean islands, Panama and Puerto Rico between November 2000 and the end of 2005. Among the visits: Payne and other caucus members attended the 10th anniversary of the Caribbean Multi-National Business Conference in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, last November.
The conference was held at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort & Spa, which describes itself as a "beach-and-water sport lover’s paradise."
Payne, D-N.J., said caucus members helped Caribbean nations get U.S. hurricane relief and met with heads of state about drug trafficking, AIDS, trade and port security.
"If it’s the Caribbean caucus, you have to go to the Caribbean," Payne said.
The Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation rented a gun range in a Maryland suburb in mid-May. The group’s motto: "We give sportsmen a voice … and a seat at the table."
Although the range is in a public park near Washington, the foundation made sure a range official and uniformed officer were at the entrance to turn the public away.
Rep. Robin Hayes (news, bio, voting record), R-N.C., finished as the overall top gun in the shooting competition. Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Don Young, R-Alaska, also won trophies.
Peterson hardly missed with his Ruger Red Label 12-gauge. Rep. Todd Tiahrt (news, bio, voting record), R-Kan., admittedly didn’t shoot well. He left his personal gun at home in Kansas and had to use shotguns provided by the hosts.
After the competition, lawmakers were treated to a live band and a buffet of shrimp, barbecue, oysters, chicken, cole slaw and potato salad. Trophies were handed out.
Back at the Capitol, senators debated the heated issue of immigration while the House gaveled to order, passed eight bills or resolutions by voice vote and held more than a half dozen hearings on various legislation.
Peterson and Tiahrt said they didn’t discuss legislation or view the shootout as a special way for lobbyists to make their case.
"From my point of view, people who come to this are people I know and talk to all the time," Peterson said. "I don’t think folks out there would think they’re getting access they don’t get already."
Added Tiahrt: "The lobbying community can come by my office any time."
© 2006 The Associated Press