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March 24, 2016

Congress Has a Miami Vice: Non-Florida Members Spent $52K in Miami Beach in 2015

By Walker Davis

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) caught flack last month for hanging out poolside in Miami Beach, FL with lobbyists for Airlines for America (A4A), the trade association that represents the major air carriers, just after the House committee he chairs approved legislation sought by the airlines. As Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington pointed out, it was hardly the first time Rep. Shuster spent time at a tropical resort in the name of raising campaign and PAC funds from special interests.

Such vacation fundraising, a common practice in Congress, is win-win for both legislators and lobbyists: lobbyists get valuable facetime with legislators, legislators collect checks for their political operations, and everyone enjoys the perks of time away. Members of Congress benefit in particular since lobbyists can indirectly foot the bill for their wine tasting, golf rounds, or ski runs with their contributions.  

Rep. Shuster is not the only member of Congress who enjoys Miami Beach as a vacation fundraising locale. Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that in 2015, 30 members of Congress from districts outside of Florida — eight Democrats and 22 Republicans — paid a combined $52,425.61 in campaign and political action committee (PAC) expenses to hotels and restaurants on the seven square miles of Miami Beach. Eighteen members reported expenses at hotels recognized as five-star by the Five Star Alliance, and four reported expenses at restaurants that fall into Yelp’s most expensive price category.

Though he wasn’t alone in traveling to Miami Beach, Rep. Shuster easily spent the most money there. His campaign and PAC paid more than $10,000 to restaurants and hotels in Miami Beach last year. He reported expenses at three different Miami Beach hotels, suggesting multiple trips. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) was the number two spender, and the top spending Democrat; he spent $5,677.78 at the James Bond-approved Fontainebleau in February and March of 2015.

Reps. Sean Duffy (R-WI) and Jeff Denham (R-CA) were the third and fourth top spenders. They both paid more than $3,000 to The Shore Club, a five-star hotel. Former congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL), the fifth top spender, made all three of his Miami Beach expenditures — around $3,000 altogether — at Joe’s Stone Crab, including an $848.92 expense for “Fundraising Event Catering” paid after he had announced his resignation from Congress.

Both parties’ members chose to stay in luxury hotels, but, in an echo of the partisan political environment back in D.C., hotel choice split along party lines, a divide that is partly explained by the fact that party members attend each other’s fundraisers. The Republicans gravitate to The Shore Club, a favorite of both A-list celebrities as well as the artier Art Basel crowd, where they spent $20,926.91 in 2015. Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, prefer the Fontainebleau, which doubles as the location of LIV nightclub where Justin Bieber parties, which Drake sings about, and where Lil Wayne celebrated his birthday. Democrats spent $8,523.04 at the Fontainebleau in 2015.

Six members of Congress — Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Rep. Duffy, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), Rep. Ben Lujan (D-NM), Rep. Shuster, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) — reported expenditures at restaurants owned by celebrity chefs. Again, Rep. Shuster especially showed off his good taste. His campaign paid for catering from not one, but two celebrity chef restaurants: Top Chef alumnus Fabio Viviani’s Siena Tavern and James Beard Award winner Andrew Carmellini’s The Dutch. Even though she left Congress on January 3, 2015, former Rep. Michele Bachmann’s PAC also reported spending $261.60 at Lure Fishbar, the restaurant of Spike TV’s “Frankenfood” host Josh Capon, on January 16, 2015. Her spending was not included in CREW’s overall tally.

Fundraising may be a necessary evil for members of Congress, but there’s an obvious element of personal indulgence here, too. These types of expenses at least cast desperate fundraising emails in a new light. But more troublesome than the garish accommodations is the company. These trips give lobbyists and other interests a relaxed setting and ample time to pitch their agenda to a lawmaker to whom they’ve just given a big contribution. Members of Congress deny there’s any undue influence, but special interest groups have fewer pretenses.  “An informal setting is an effective way to build a better relationship,” one health care lobbyist told the New York Times. “It’s a way to get some large chunks of a lawmaker’s time.” 

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