The News Without Transparency: Heritage Foundation Illustrates Travel Restriction Loopholes

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Earlier this month Roll Call reported on how the the Heritage Foundation has taken advantage of loopholes in House ethics rules, allowing the group to continue taking Members of Congress and their staffers on annual retreats with registered lobbyists.

The article states that the Heritage Foundation took a number of Members of Congress on an expensive retreat; something House ethics rules wouldn’t allow if the organization still had registered lobbyists on staff like it once did. Because Heritage created a separate but affiliated organization called Heritage Action in 2010, and only employs lobbyists through that outfit now, the expensive retreats are completely within the rules.  The overlap between the groups becomes more apparent when you look at who they employ: a man named Michael Franc is both the vice president of governmental studies at the Heritage Foundation and the supervisor of Congressional outreach and a director at Heritage Action.

This investigative piece by Roll Call would not have been possible without public access to information about Congressional travel and outside lobbying efforts.

The article states the following:

  • “The Heritage Foundation chartered a bus in late January and sent 40 Members and a handful of staffers from the House Republican Study Committee to the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia for a three-day retreat… It cost more than $50,000…”
  • “Last year, Heritage spent almost $125,000 to fly about 50 Members and a few staffers — along with spouses and other family members — to Simi Valley in January 2011 so they could be near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library for a retreat titled ‘In the Steps of Reagan.’”

House Rule 25 of the 112th Congress requires members, officers, and staff to file reports detailing travel-related expenses reimbursed by non-government sources. Reports received after January 1, 2008 are required to be posted online by Section 304 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA). This data is available from the Clerk of the House’s database of Congressional and Staff Gift and Travel Filings.

The article also uses lobbying information to state the following:

  • “The trip was just months after foundation employees left to open an affiliated advocacy organization called Heritage Action for America, which spent more than $150,000 lobbying Congress last year.”
  • “Looking just a few years back, the so-called charity Heritage Foundation itself was [a Lobbying Disclosure Act] registrant in 2006…” (quoting Craig Holman of Public Citizen)

The Lobbying Disclosure Act (updated as HLOGA in 2007) makes this data public by requiring lobbyists and lobbying groups to register and provide a variety of information on the issues and bills that they lobby on. A search in the House Clerk’s database for Heritage Action for America shows you that the group first registered in June 2010. Last year, their filings show that they spent $157,383 lobbying in 2011.

Roll Call cited another example of ethics loopholes being exploited, stating that:

  • “Just days before the excursion to Philadelphia, the Congressional Institute… spent more than $60,000 to send more than five dozen staffers to meet their bosses in Baltimore for the annual House Republican Conference retreat… Speaker John Boehner approved 13 staffers to make the trip to Baltimore; Majority Leader Eric Cantor approved travel for 11 others.”

This travel data is also available from the House Clerk database. The data can be searched by “approver,” which is the member of Congress a staffer works for.

The article also states that:

  • “Every member of the Congressional Institute’s board is a current or former registered lobbyist — for organizations that include Verizon, American Express, UPS, Altria and Boston Scientific…”

The Congressional Institute maintains a list of board members on its website. This list can be compared with either Open Secrets’ list of registered lobbyists or the Clerk of the House’s lobbying disclosure filing database to find out if those members were once, or are currently, registered lobbyists.

Policy Fellow Matt Rumsey contributed research and writing assistance to this post.

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“The News Without Transparency” shows you what the news would look like without public access to information. Laws and regulations that force the government to make the data it has publicly available are absolutely vital, along with services that take that raw data and make it easy for reporters to write sentences like the ones we’ve redacted in the piece above. If you have an article you’d like us to put through the redaction machine, please send us an email at mbuck@sunlightfoundation.com.

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