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The Volatile Mix of Politics and Golf

Again the question arises: Why would anyone run for the House of Representatives? The workload is overwhelming, the hours awful and the trips back home exhausting. The partisanship is vicious, the intra-party rivalries often even worse.

And that's not even to mention the golf.

It's a hard game to explain, and even harder when it's tangled up with politics. No other sport has gotten so many House members into so much trouble.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) and House Administration Committee chair Bob Ney (R-OH) are just the latest walking proof. Each of them happily teed off at Scotland's St. Andrews course -- the ultimate golfing experience -- apparently without double-checking where their lobbyist friend, Jack Abramoff, really got the money to take them there.

DeLay points out that his trip was fully reported and had destinations beyond the fairways of golf's birthplace. He met with British former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the U.S. ambassador and members of the Scottish Conservative Caucus. Ney later said he was not "even remotely aware" that money from Abramoff's Indian tribe clients -- clients who wanted help from Ney -- bankrolled his trip. He also said he's not even a serious golfer, and had to borrow a set of clubs for the trip.

No photos have emerged of DeLay or Ney lining up a putt at St. Andrews. Still, the trips have become emblematic of DeLay's travails. Maybe the mental image of golfing pols, like the prospect of a hanging, has a special power to focus the mind.

The history of club-swinging politicos is a long one. Presidents have loved the game. John F. Kennedy tried to keep his passion for it secret because golf was so identified with his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Gerald Ford had a newsworthy if regrettable talent for beaning spectators with his drives. George H. W. Bush invented speed golf -- the less time between holes, the better. And what better demonstrated Bill Clinton's "one more chance" style than his penchant for mulligans?

But for members of the House of Representatives, golf is a far riskier proposition. Consider:

Dan Rostenkowski, the steak-and-martinis Chicago Democrat who reigned over the House Ways and Means Committee for 13 years, used to write off many of his golf outings as campaign expenditures. That extravagance helped fuel the investigation that brought him down. It also helped spur the Federal Election Commission to bar the use of campaign contributions for non-campaign activities.

Then there were the charity golf tournaments. House members used to flock to them; logically, so did lobbyists.

Indiana Republican Dan Burton told his colleagues in 1995 that there was nothing wrong with charity foursomes, because they were drawn by lottery. "You do not know if it is a lobbyist or a businessman or who it is," he said on the House floor, in a bid to water down new restrictions on gifts to House members. "So this idea that we are being lobbied all the time is crazy."

But even Burton's House colleagues couldn't buy the idea that lobbyists were only thinking of chip shots and charity. His weakening amendment failed. Still, it took the House two tries, under Democratic leadership in 1994 and under Republicans in 1995, to swear off golfing for other people's charities.

Two years later, Burton became chairman of a committee overseeing a big contract for government phone services. AT&T, one of the bidders, also happened to sponsor the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am Tournament. Burton had always wanted to play Pebble Beach, and by coincidence AT&T was willing to invite him. The company also threw a fundraiser. Burton said he and his campaign committee paid his way.

(Burton, incidentally, is considered one of the House's best golfers, and may be the sport's most ardent champion on Capitol Hill. He's a one-time caddie himself, and twice introduced bills to change the tax status of caddies. He said he wanted to make it harder for golf-course owners to fire caddies and replace them with golf carts. The bills never passed.)

Of course, no compendium of congressional golf would be complete without mention of the famous threesome that became a foursome. In 1980, three House members went on a golfing jaunt to Florida. Joining them was Paula Parkinson, a 20-something blonde lobbyist who later hinted strongly in print that her lobbying techniques could be unusually tactile.

That golfing-trip scandal ended the congressional career of Delaware Republican Thomas Evans Jr., although he rebuilt his life to become a successful -- and certainly more conventional -- lobbyist. Other lawmakers on the trip, including future vice president Dan Quayle, all escaped with minor injuries to their reputations. Parkinson posed nude for Playboy and later left D.C.

More typically, though, congressmen (it always seems to be the men) get written up because golf so often seems to involve large amounts of money.

Individual members and the party committees raise money with golf events. Some House members throw charity tournaments of their own, even though they no longer can play in charity events for others. Whatever the event, it offers lobbyists and donors some quality time with lawmakers, away from the clamorous halls of Congress -- and of reporters who cover it.

In 1996, Virginia Republican Tom Bliley threw a charity tourney at his hometown country club. Bliley at the time chaired the Commerce Committee, which may the single most heavily lobbied panel in the House. The tournament souvenirs: wristwatches with Bliley's picture on the face, paid for by Bliley's campaign.

Three years ago, Tom DeLay invited a small group of energy company executives to a golfing and fundraising weekend at an elegant Virginia resort. The timing coincided with the House-Senate conference for the energy bill -- as an executive of Westar, an energy company shopping for a specific provision, noted in a memo. It resulted in one of the three admonishments issued to DeLay last fall by the House ethics committee.

DeLay also heads to the links to raise money for the DeLay Foundation For Kids, which is building a community for foster children in Texas. But he ran up against the government watchdog groups when he tried to tee off with big donors at the 2004 Republican National Convention. He eventually cancelled the tourney and several other charity events, and spent the convention week maintaining a relatively low profile.

So it may be true, as venerated sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, that "18 holes of match or medal play will teach you more about your foe than will 18 years of dealing with him across a desk."

But for members of the House, just getting to the clubhouse unnoticed can be hard enough.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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