Blog — Senate Members

September 08, 2014

Major Airlines Contribute Airfare to Honor Politicians

By CREW Staff

Airline ContributionsThree airlines have collectively contributed more than $2.3 million in in-kind airfare to charities in honor of members of Congress and senior administration officials over the past five years. Southwest Airlines, the largest such contributor, has given more than $1.3 million in ticket vouchers and passes over that time period, according to lobbying contribution disclosure reports. United Airlines gave $742,905 and Alaska Airlines gave $239,940.

Honorary contributions to favored charities can be one way special interests cultivate access to lawmakers. Such contributions from organizations that lobby must be disclosed on reports filed twice a year. Gift rules prohibit members of Congress from accepting vouchers given directly by the airline, though under an exception to those rules, charities are allowed to distribute such vouchers to members for travel to attend a charitable event, though it is impossible to detect the ultimate recipients of the vouchers from the lobbying contribution disclosure reports.

In 2012, Southwest and United had a head-to-head battle over Southwest’s application to add international flights to Latin American destinations out of Houston’s Hobby Airport. Southwest eventually won approval to offer international flights from Hobby, beginning in 2015. The expansion at Hobby means that Houston will need more U.S. Customs and Border Protections officers to staff its new port of entry. Customs personnel are already shared between Bush Intercontinental Airport, United’s regional hub, and the Port of Houston. Members of Congress will be responsible for approving and allocating additional funds to staff the existing facilities and the new inspection center to be built at Hobby. Southwest and United have spent millions of dollars over the past five years lobbying Congress on issues including Homeland Security Appropriations and Customs and Border Protection.

More than half of Southwest’s contributions went to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO). Southwest is listed on CHCI’s website as a sponsor and is the official airline for the CHCI Graduate and Public Policy Fellowship Programs, suggesting at least some ticket vouchers may have been for use by CHCI fellows. In addition, a Southwest representative serves on CHCI’s board. The contributions to the CHCI and to NALEO were made in honor of members of Congress who serve on their boards. Southwest also contributed $16,000 worth of airline tickets in both 2009 and 2011 to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Southwest was a top-level sponsor of the 2011 LULAC National Legislative Awards Gala, which honored former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR), who represents Puerto Rico in Congress.

The largest recipient of United’s contributions was the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, which received $250,000 in in-kind airfare in 2011 in honor of Melody Barnes. Ms. Barnes was assistant to the president and the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council from January 2009 until January 2012. The Wilson Center is a non-partisan research and policy think tank, chartered by Congress to inform policy-makers on global issues.

United also contributed $183,414 in in-kind airfare to two Houston-area theaters in honor of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). Rep. Lee is on the board of both recipient organizations, the Houston Grand Opera, which received almost all of the contributions, and the Ensemble Theatre, which received $8,314 between 2011 and 2012. Rep. Lee represents most of Houston, where Continental Airlines was based prior to merging with United in 2010. The merged airline is now based in Chicago. Rep. Lee is also the ranking member of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security of the Homeland Security Committee and a member of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security of the Judiciary Committee, giving her some oversight over customs staffing. The third largest recipient of United’s in-kind airfare contributions is the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute. The company’s reports show it gave $72,652 to the Institute in honor of its founder, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). United has also contributed $48,925 to the CHCI, $40,000 to the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, and $32,670 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation since 2009.

Alaska Airlines, which was not involved in the Hobby Airport dispute but which also lobbies Congress on a variety of issues, made the smallest contributions of the three companies, primarily contributing to groups or specific fundraisers located in Alaska. The company contributed $125,400 to the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association in honor of “federal officials,” but didn’t specify which ones. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was the most frequently cited honoree for the airline, which made $42,850 in her name to recipients including The Waterfall Foundation and Copper River Nouveau. In many cases, Alaska Airlines reported making a contribution of in-kind airfare in honor of “federal officials” or “members of Congress” rather than in honor of a specific person or more defined group, despite official guidance from the offices of the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate requiring the contributor to more specifically report the name of any official being honored.

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