Special Interest Cancels Congressional Perk


Over the weekend, Mike Dorning of the Chicago Tribune reported on the means that one Washington special interest, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, used to influence members of Congress, but noted one very interesting fact. First, the means:

For years, the National Marine Manufacturers Association asked one of its member manufacturers to lend the group’s Washington lobbying office the use of a new yacht for the warm-weather months. The purpose was “to help our government relations staff develop relationships with key policy makers,” the group’s political action committee wrote in a report to members.

In 2004 and 2005, it was a 38-foot Meridian 381 Sedan that the trade association kept moored at a marina on the Potomac a few blocks from the Capitol. The cruises are emblematic of the Washington culture in which lobbyists use entertainment and gifts to curry favor with lawmakers and their staffs, said Ross Baker, a former congressional staff member and a Rutgers University political science professor who specializes in the study of Congress.

“Much of this is in the general area of buying access and goodwill for the lobbyist,” Baker said. “When the lobbyist shows up at the office, a receptionist who has been part of this outing on the yacht recognizes the lobbyist and gets him in for a meeting with the chief of staff.”

Profits in the boat industry are influenced by a wide array of federal activities, including Coast Guard regulations, fishing rules, endangered species protection, environmental standards and maintenance of federal waterways. A luxury tax imposed on the purchase of high-end boats during the early 1990s and later repealed dramatically reduced yacht sales.

Last summer, the trade association hosted more than 650 congressional aides aboard the yacht, according to a report written by the trade group’s chief lobbyist, Monita Fontaine.

Beer, soft drinks and snacks typically were provided on the cruise, Fontaine said in an interview.

In a newsletter, the organization described the Potomac yacht trips, which it said ran from mid-June through early October, as a way for members to Congress “to reward their staffs, while at the same time allowing us to thank members for their support of the recreational boating industry.”

The cruise series “is intensely popular and one of the most talked-about events on Capitol Hill,” the newsletter added.

Here’s how the National Marine Manufacturers Association described the practice in a report on their lobbying efforts in the 108th Congress that’s quoted in the above passage.

But here’s the interesting part of the article. NMMA suspended the floating fundraisers in 2006:

With the trade association required to make arrangements for a boat by late winter, shortly after the Abramoff scandal erupted and amid speculation that Congress would act to tighten gift rules, the group decided to suspend the cruise series this year, Fontaine said.

“The atmosphere was poisoned at that time, and we didn’t have a clarification on what Congress would do with gift rules. Until we have that clarified, we will wait, to make sure everything is aboveboard,” Fontaine said.

Note the language. When lawmakers have to be circumspect and hold (or appear to hold) special interests at arm’s length, it’s because of a poisoned atmosphere.