This weekend, Republican leaders will convene at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel in Baltimore to plot strategy, socialize, and plan both legislative and campaign themes for the year. Yesterday morning, ThinkProgress caught up with House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-OH), who confirmed that the Congressional Institute — a nonprofit run by Republican corporate lobbyists — is sponsoring the retreat. Normally, such lobbyist-sponsored soirées would be illegal under House ethics rules. But by forming an ostensibly nonpartisan educational front called the Congressional Institute, lobbyists are able to skirt any such oversight. However, Boehner told ThinkProgress that he did not know if any lobbyists would be present at the retreat:
TP: For your retreat this weekend, is the Congressional Institute attending or sponsoring at all?
BOEHNER: They’ve always sponsored retreats for both Democrats and Republicans.
TP: Are any of their lobbyists attending this weekend?
BOEHNER: I don’t know. [...] I said I don’t know.
Boehner is wrong when he claims that the Congressional Institute sponsors Democratic retreats. According to the Politico, House Democratic retreats are not paid for by any special interest funds or the lobbyist-run Congressional Institute.
To fact-check Boehner’s sheepish reply that he simply didn’t know if lobbyists would be at the retreat, I visited the Renaissance hotel in Baltimore yesterday afternoon. Upon arriving at the front desk, I spoke to Patrick Deitz, a staff assistant for the Congressional Institute, who confirmed that Congressional Institute board member Michael Johnson was upstairs at the retreat, and that Dan Meyer, another board member, was on his way. Johnson, a lobbyist at the OB-C Group, touts himself as a “Republican heavyweight” whose firm represents the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, JP Morgan Chase, and the health insurance giant WellPoint. Meyer, a longtime Republican operative and chairman of the Congressional Institute, works for the Duberstein Group, where he represents BP, Goldman Sachs, HealthNet, and AHIP, the umbrella trade group for the health insurance industry. Meyer’s colleague at his lobbying firm, Steve Champlin, urged insurance industry executives last year to fight ruthless to kill health reform, proclaiming, don’t “give comfort to the enemy who is down.”
After informing Deitz and other Congressional Institute staffers that I work for ThinkProgress and wanted to interview some of the lobbyists in attendance, another staffer, named Mary, told me to leave the building or else I would be arrested. Mary, who refused to give her business card or last name, told Deitz not to tell me his last name either. During the course of the conversation with Congressional Institute staffers, a gaggle of men dressed in business attire discussed technology policy behind me. One of them had a name tag that read John Sampson; who according to his LinkedIn profile is the chief lobbyist for Microsoft.
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that ThinkProgress will be able to attend, or even approach the building, for the lobbyist-organized GOP retreat. If we could, we might witness quite a reunion. Many of the lobbyists running the Congressional Institute are former top staffers to Newt Gingrich, who is addressing the gathering. Here is a picture of Congressional Institute board members Meyer and Arne Christenson — now a lobbyist for American Express — plotting strategy for Gingrich back in 1995.
Responding to the State of the Union, Boehner was quick to attack the administration for supposedly lacking transparency. But for a retreat planning public policy, Boehner apparently prefers to keep the corporate lobbyists involved behind closed doors — and even refuses to acknowledge their attendance.