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Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014 09:01 am

Congress critters can be lovable for a price

 A counselor recently advised, “an informal setting,” adding that it is “an effective way to build a better relationship.”

That sounds like advice that a love counselor might offer to couples, but not so. This relationship is not about romance – but money. This particular counselor is a lobbyist for the health care industry, and he was explaining the art of wooing congress critters by paying several thousand bucks to spend a weekend with them at some posh resort in Vail, Key West or another luxury getaway.

By holding what are called “destination fundraisers” outside of Washington, lawmakers and lobbyists can spend lots of quality time together as they ski, snorkel and schmooze. “It’s a way to get some large chunks of a lawmaker’s time,” oozed the lobbyist, who had recently enjoyed three days at the Four Seasons Resort in Vail with five Republican House members, two of whom are on the committee that writes our health laws. More on this later.

But wait, wasn’t there such a big stink about lobbyist-paid golf junkets a few years ago, that Congress was forced by public outrage to prohibit influence peddlers from paying for those back-ally affairs? Yes, but Washington believes that where there’s a will, there’s a workaround. Here’s how this one works: The lawmakers’ political committees pay for their travel, food, booze and lodging – so these expenses technically are not “gifts” from lobbyists. In turn, the favor seekers come at their own expense, then make legal donations at the event to the members’ reelection campaigns.

The donations end up being three or four times the cost of the event, so the lawmakers pocket a nice wad of cash, while the lobbyists enjoy a weekend of making legislative whoopee. Since the donations and the event are considered “separate” transactions, it’s all legal, see?

Neither do I. In fact, what I see is just another corrupt way for corporations to buy Congress. Who do they think they’re fooling?

In fact, they’re not even fooling themselves, as a corporate lobbyist recently admitted to the New York Times, “Everybody is embarrassed about it. Although not so embarrassed that they don’t do it.”

The embarrassing “it” is, of course, this scandalous copulation between corporate cash and willing legislators. These getaways are explicit, tawdry examples of the prostitution of our legislative system, which is why the participants like to slip away to these rendezvous resorts, out of sight of home-district voters and pesky reporters.

But if you had wandered innocently into the toney Four Seasons resort of Vail, Colo., in early January, you could’ve witnessed one of these group gropes. Assorted lobbyists, including one who represents the utility giant, PPL Corporation, had slipped tens of thousands of dollars into the political pockets of Rep. Ed Whitfield and four other House members for the pleasure of rubbing elbows, wining and dining, and whispering sweet legislative nothings to them for hours.

At one dinner, this warm and cozy group munched on bacon-wrapped prawns, dug into juicy wagyu steaks, and swilled $60-a-bottle wine as they played scratch-my-back, Washington-style politics. Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican, was especially popular with the utility lobbyists, for he chairs the House committee that handles legislation affecting – guess who – utilities! And Ed must’ve had a good time in Vail, because when he returned to Washington, he promptly introduced a bill to let PPL and other electric utilities build additional polluting, coal-burning power plants – an industry favor that would overturn necessary health protections recently approved by the Obama administration.

Sure, the public’s approval rating for Congress is at historic lows, but the Vail, Colo. experience shows that lawmakers can be loveable – for a hefty price.

Jim Hightower is national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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