Finley: Lawrence joins Puerto Rico beach party

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

With the federal government in partial shutdown, more than 30 Democratic Congress members and their families breezed off to a beach resort in Puerto Rico last weekend for a junket with lobbyists.

Among the group was the Detroit area's own Rep. Brenda Lawrence.

Fortunately, Lawrence and her colleagues didn't have to walk past the airport TSA staffers who are working without pay: they flew on a private jet chartered by BOLD PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield

Joining them at the $425-a-night resort were 109 lobbyists from large K Street firms, executives from corporations including Facebook, R.J. Reynolds and Microsoft, and unions, including the National Education Association.

Ostensibly a fact-finding mission to show the delegation the devastation remaining from two hurricanes, the getaway featured a special performance of the play Hamilton and a party with the cast, as well as two other poolside soirees. Some Congress members were photographed sunbathing on the beach.

More:Lawrence visits Puerto Rico with delegation, prompting GOP attack

Still, Lawrence insists this was a working trip, and an invaluable one at that.

"I got more than I expected," she says. "We met with the governor, the Senate, community non-profits. We actually talked to mayors. It was grueling. I sat through panel after panel. We also got gratitude. They’ve felt like no one really cared."

Lawrence says the Democrats learned about the territory's poverty, its Medicaid needs, and reassured officials that President Donald Trump would not be able to hijack relief aid to build a border wall.

Like most of the delegation, Lawrence took a guest -- her husband, whom she says worked hard as well. She says she paid for their Hamilton tickets with personal funds, but acknowledged "sponsors" covered the rest of the couple's expenses.

The congresswoman says she wasn't sure what role the lobbyists played on the visit. "That was not why I was invited. I was invited for the humanitarian mission and to meet with elected officials. I didn’t realize they were going to be there."

The media, strangely, found little interesting about the trip. CBS This Morning did a piece that focused on the lingering effects of the storms, but didn't mention the lobbyists, the play or the parties. 

I can't imagine that if 30-some Republicans had left Washington for the Caribbean to sun themselves with lobbyists during this shutdown that there would be such little media scrutiny.

There's nothing extraordinary about the trip -- as Lawrence says, everyone in Congress takes them --  except for its insensitive timing. And that's unfortunate. As taxpayers we should care that our congress members routinely travel all over the world on boondoggles paid for by special interests.

If it were really in America's interests for Congress members to visit exotic locales to gather facts, then the government should pay, not "sponsors." Lawrence notes the House ethics committee OK'd the trip. 

The Democrats did carry with them on the plane 250 pounds of medical supplies, about the equivalent of six suitcases worth of Bermuda shorts and tank tops. 

It must be mentioned that unlike the 400,000 government workers who are still on the job but didn't get paid last Friday, the sun-loving Congress members collected their paychecks right on time.

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