Big bucks spent honoring lawmakers

Big bucks spent honoring lawmakers
© Getty Images

Corporations, universities, unions and other groups spent almost $20 million last year honoring federal officials and the organizations close to them, according to an analysis by The Hill.

Although rules ban gifts to federal officials and place limits on campaign contributions, there is no limit on the amount of money that can be spent honoring lawmakers and top officials with plaques and events, nor are there limits on donations to charities and institutes that policymakers support.


The so-called honorary expenses are central to the way Washington works yet are rarely reported in the press.

“It’s a very common way of building a relationship with members of Congress, and that has been true for many, many years,” said Robert Kelner, the chair of Covington and Burlington’s election and political law practice.

“It comes in many different forms. A lot of interest groups look to support charities that are near and dear to a member of Congress, and every year there are many events honoring members,” he said. “It’s a routine part of lobbying in Washington to support those events.”

More than 240 of organizations shelled out $19.75 million on honorary expenses last year, according to Senate disclosure records reviewed by The Hill.

The contributions were made to more than 100 different organizations, some of which have federal officials on their boards.

Dozens of lawmakers also received awards or plaques as part of the more than 1,300 individual expenditures listed in the reports.

Chevron, for example, which reported $687,000 in total honorary expenses last year, gave $50,000 to the State Department in May. It is legal for corporations to give money directly to agencies in many cases.

“We have strict policies and internal approval processes to ensure that decision making and reporting on all charitable and political contributions comply with the letter and spirit of all applicable laws,” said company spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie, while declining to discuss the State Department contribution.

The National Parks Conservation Association spent $272,000 on its annual dinner, where it handed out awards to Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySchumer kicks into reelection mode Democrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act Senators eye rollback of Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act MORE (D-Wash.). Because lawmakers were honored at the dinner, the total spending on the event had to be reported on disclosure forms.

Universities are even required to report when officials and lawmakers speak at commencement ceremonies.

Johns Hopkins University reported spending $620,063 on its graduation ceremony, in which Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, received honorary degrees.

The corporations, unions and nonprofits that responded to inquires from The Hill about their honorary expenses all emphasized a long commitment to charitable causes, which appeared to make up a large amount of money spent.

“You can’t always assume that just because a corporation gave to a particular event it has anything to do with a lawmaker being honored,” Kelner said. “They may have a long history of working with that charity.”

Following the Jack Abramoff scandal in the mid 2000s, Congress approved new gift and ethics rul es that require lobbyists and the organizations that hire them to submit reports about various donations twice per year, including ones where they “honor” or recognize an official.

In 2008, the first year the guidelines were put into place, organizations disclosed $35.8 million in honorary contributions, according to a USA Today review at the time.

But the decline to around $20 million last year may not reflect a drop in activity, according to several compliance experts.

“Some confusion does exist in determining whether or not specific expenses need to be reported as honorary in the first place,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock. “You have a lot of inconsistent reporting.”

Buying a table at a dinner at which members are honored or speak — something that groups and lobbyists in Washington do routinely — does not have to be disclosed under the ethics rules. In order to trigger disclosure, the spending must be for multiple tables that substantially contribute to the cost of the event or include leadership tasks for the event.

Some companies told The Hill they reported some honorary expenses “out of an abundance of caution.”

“There are a lot of judgment calls on what’s reportable, and as a result there’s more activity than you see just by looking at the” disclosure forms, Kelner said.

Compliance lawyers said there is no real enforcement over the expenses to make sure they are being reported properly, or at all.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute — which have lawmakers on their boards — received the highest amount of honorary contributions of any organization with connections to members of Congress, taking in $2.8 million and $2.4 million, respectively.

A spokesman for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute said that the organization’s bylaws prohibit members of Congress from directly fundraising for the organization and that lawmakers on the board only participate in advice on “strategic direction and growth.”

Eight corporations reported giving a total of $110,000 to the Utah Families Foundation, a charity that Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchPress: Forget bipartisanship — it's dead! Privatization of foster care has been a disaster for children Remembering Ted Kennedy highlights decline of the Senate MORE (R-Utah) helped start in the 1990s. Meanwhile, 20 companies gave a combined $141,382 to the James E. Clyburn Research & Scholarship Foundation, a charity named after the South Carolina Democrat, last year.

The Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies, which has lawmakers on its board, received $155,000 from three companies and a trade association.

Three companies gave more than $100,000 to the Faith & Politics Institute, in which Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) serves as a co-chair emeritus. Raytheon listed on its forms a $25,000 expense to the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, which takes its name from Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainColbert mocks Gaetz after Trump denies he asked for a pardon Five reasons why US faces chronic crisis at border Meghan McCain calls on Gaetz to resign MORE (R-Ariz.)

“You often find that corporations giving to a foundation [with ties to officials] have direct business pending before the” government, said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen. The data on honorary fees, even if it’s incomplete, is an attempt “to get some disclosure of that kind of influence-peddling.”

Still, it’s clear that the spending by corporations doesn’t always win them friends in high places.

Apple spent almost $1.3 million in November to co-sponsor the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s annual awards gala, which honored CIA Director John Brennan, among others.

Three months later, the intelligence chief sided with the FBI in its fight with Apple regarding its strict encryption policy as the government sought the company’s help in unlocking an iPhone used by one of the perpetrators of last year’s terrorist attack in  San Bernardino, Calif.

While some forms include information about what the expenditures were intended for, the vast majority of them vague.

“The guidance makes clear that [disclosures] are supposed to contain a level of detail to inform the public about the nature of certain expenses that are being reported,” said Rosenstein, the compliance attorney. “But if the disclosures, in practice, are so opaque so as to make it impossible to know what’s going on, then the purpose of the [forms] is being undermined.”

Haley Britzky and Luke Barr contributed to this report.


Non-profits with lawmaker ties

Organization: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

Officials: Reps. G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), ex officio, Gwen MooreGwen Sophia MooreLawmakers urge IRS to boost outreach about tax credits for low-income Americans McMorris Rodgers floats vacating Speaker's chair over Democrat's in-person vote after COVID diagnosis House approves rules package for new Congress MORE (D-Wis.), Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeGeorgia election law prevents African American, Latinx, others from exercising the right to vote Chicago suburb could serve as road map for reparations Republicans call for hearing on border surge MORE (D-Texas), Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), Joyce BeattyJoyce Birdson BeattyDemocrats spar over COVID-19 vaccine strategy Black Caucus backs Biden's pick to head DOJ Civil Rights Division Sole GOP vote on House police reform bill says he 'accidentally pressed the wrong voting button' MORE (D-Ohio).

Connection: All serve on the board of directors

Total honorary donations in 2015: $2.77 million

Number of donors: 42


Organization: Congressional Black Caucus Institute

Officials: Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldDemocrats vow to go 'bold' — with or without GOP CBC 'unequivocally' endorses Shalanda Young for White House budget chief Black Caucus members lobby Biden to tap Shalanda Young for OMB head MORE (D-N.C.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), and former Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), Cedric Richmond (D-La.)

Connection: All serve on the board of directors

Total honorary donations in 2015: $794,333

Number of donors: 8


Organization: Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institue

Officials: Reps. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), Filemon Vela (D-Texas)

Connection: All serve on the board of directors

Total honorary donations in 2015: $2.4 million

Number of donors: 48


Organization: Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institue

Officials: Former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks Hillicon Valley: House votes to condemn QAnon | Americans worried about foreign election interference | DHS confirms request to tap protester phones House approves measure condemning QAnon, but 17 Republicans vote against it MORE (R-Texas), Raúl Labrador (R-Ida.), Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Albio Sires (D-N.J.), David Valadao (R-Calif.)

Connection: All serve on the board of directors. 

Total honorary donations in 2015: $291,309

Number of donors: 12


Organization: Asian Pacific American Institute of Congressional Studies

Officials: Former Rep. Joseph Anh Cao (R-La.), Reps. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.)

Connection: All serve on the board

Total honorary donations in 2015: $155,000

Number of donors: 4


Organization: James E. Clyburn Research & Scholarship Foundation

Officials: Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.)

Connection: The foundation is named after the congressman

Total honorary donations in 2015: $141,382

Number of donors: 19


Organization: Utah Families Foundation

Officials: Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah)

Connection: The senator helped found the charity

Total honorary donations in 2015: $110,000

Number of donors: 8


Organization: Faith & Politics Institute

Officials: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)

Connection: The congressman serves as co-chairman emeritus

Total honorary donations in 2015: $100,714

Number of donors: 3


Organization: Alliance for Health Reform

Officials: Sens. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinWhen it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, what's a moderate Democrat to do? Battle lines drawn on Biden's infrastructure plan GOP senator hammers Biden proposal to raise corporate tax rate MORE (D-Md.) and Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge DC delegate pushes for removing Capitol fence despite car attack Coons says bipartisan infrastructure package 'likely' to be smaller, not fully financed MORE (R-Mo.)

Connection: The senators serve as honorary co-chairmen

Total honorary donations in 2015: $80,000

Number of donors: 1


Organization: McCain Institute on International Leadership at Arizona State University

Officials: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 

Connection: The foundation is named after the senator

Total honorary donations in 2015: $27,000

Number of donors: 2


--- This report was updated at 10:07 a.m.