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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – During his early years as the representative of North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, Rep. Ted Budd, like most of his colleagues, took advantage of his position to take several trips funded by outside groups.

But now those sometimes lavish trips that were paid for by his benefactor Club for Growth and other conservative organizations are drawing new scrutiny after members of his own party attacked him during the Republican US Senate primary, which he won, for the outside money his campaign had received.

Ted Budd (Courtesy of US Congress)
Ted Budd (Courtesy of US Congress)

These trips are perfectly legal but bring into stark relief the staunch conservative image Budd, a gun-shop owner from Advance, has carved since being elected to Congress in 2016 and overwhelmingly winning the nomination to face Democrat Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, in the race to replace retiring Republican Richard Burr in November.

Their race has appeared to be tightening in recent polls and is an important outcome for two deadlocked parties looking to gain or maintain control of the U.S. Senate.

During the campaign before Budd’s easy primary victory over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker and 11 others on May 17, Budd’s financial backing often became the focus of his opponents, especially McCrory, during debates, when Budd wasn’t there to respond.

Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, spent about $14 million to back Budd during the primary. That was the same approach as this super PAC took in 2016, when Budd emerged from a field of 17 and won his primary in the 13th District with 20% of the vote.

Democrats have been focusing on Budd’s voting record, his endorsement by and support of former President Donald Trump, but now they are drawing attention to more than a half-dozen excursions to sometimes expensive resorts, saying such trips contribute to Budd’s being a “corrupt politician” but that Budd’s office defends as an effort to support “the working families of North Carolina.”

WGHP examined some of the reports Budd filed with the U.S. House of Representatives about those trips to understand which groups were courting his attention and paying for his presence.

About those trips

Primary in that review are trips that involved Budd’s relationship with Club for Growth. He attended conferences that the group staged in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 at the Breakers, an ultra-posh resort on the Atlantic in West Palm Beach, Florida, where minimum room rates hit about $900 per night. Sometimes his wife, Amy Kate, went with him.

Four visits reviewed by WGHP cost nearly $15,000, including nearly $9,000 for lodging and meals, based on reports filed with the U.S. House of Representatives. Trips involving members of Congress are collected and filed in a searchable database maintained by the clerk of the House of Representatives.

That database shows such trips by members of the House from both parties to be routine and numerous. Occasionally a member is cited for ethics violations, but those violations typically have had a direct correlation to legislation or, in at least one case, were because they were paid for by a foreign government.

An examination by WGHP of some of the reports Budd filed with Congress also showed that he received:

The total for all of these is less than $34,000, and Budd filed all appropriate paperwork. There were no problems with campaign finance laws, an official for the Federal Election Commission said, because they didn’t apply to fundraising.

Eric Heberlig

Eric Heberlig, a professor of public policy at UNC-Charlotte, said such trips are “common over congressional breaks. But even when Congress is in session, there are frequently evening receptions where interest groups can mingle with legislators.

“These trips are more an opportunity for the group to build a long-term relationship with the legislator than to lobby on any specific piece of legislation.”  

Jonathan Felts, senior adviser to the Ted Budd for Senate campaign, wrote in an email to WGHP that Budd’s office is “always open to learning about innovative new policy ideas that have helped create jobs in other places and might work in North Carolina.

 “On the flip-side, it’s also good to learn about bad ideas that haven’t worked and should be avoided. Sadly, as is clear to anyone who’s bought gas or paid for groceries recently, Cheri Beasley and Joe Biden have been perfectly happy to embrace bad ideas much to the chagrin of the working families of North Carolina.”

Ethics rules define allowances

House ethics rules are specific about what is allowed and what isn’t. Travel invitations for members and staff are considered to be a “gift to the Member, officer, or employee. Like any other gift, travel expenses are subject to the basic gift prohibitions – including the prohibition against soliciting a gift – and they may be accepted only in accordance with the provisions of the gift rule. 

“Therefore, before accepting travel, a Member, officer, or employee should exercise special care to ensure compliance with the gift rule and other applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”

The reference to the “rule on gifts” is to Rule 25, which addresses all manner of issues about gifts, including prohibitions on accepting “gifts” in exchange for actions in Congress, such as introducing legislation for the entity providing the gift. Some members of Congress do take lavish trips, and most organizations use posh hotels for their events as part of the drawing card.

Some, such as the Democratic Governors Association – NC Gov. Roy Cooper is the chair for its annual meeting in New Orleans – and the Council for State Governments (Honolulu) are scheduled in places known to be expensive, such as Sun Valley, Idaho; Park City, Utah; San Diego; Napa, California; and Marco Island, Florida, along with all of the major metro areas.

Budd’s trip to the Breakers in 2017 on Club for Growth’s dime was with select company, based on congressional records. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) were there, along with Mark Meadows, who before he was chief of staff for Trump represented the 11th Congressional District in North Carolina. Raul Labrador of Idaho, Rod Blum of Iowa, Justin Amash of Michigan, John Ratcliffe of Texas and Andy Biggs and David Scweikert of Arizona also attended, based on a report by McClatchy, which said the trips “were legal, involved no taxpayer dollars and were cleared, in the case of the House, by its Ethics Committee.”

“The Club for Growth supports economic growth policies that create jobs and have always been very transparent about supporting candidates who want to create more and better jobs for working families,” Felts said. “It’s pretty revealing about Cheri Beasley’s Socialist agenda that she thinks it’s a bad thing for Ted Budd to be supported by folks who want more and better jobs for the working families of North Carolina.”

The Aspen Institute

But the trips Budd made for the Aspen Institute weren’t on face value politically involved. Aspen Institute is known as a nonpartisan organization that brings together people “to address some of the world’s most complex problems.” The organization, which is based in Washington but has a facility in Aspen, Colorado, has had since 1983 a congressional program to facilitate discussions on issues. AI says 458 members of Congress (including 35% of the current Congress) have been involved. Its events are off the record, its website says, and “free of special interests and lobbying.”

It was through that program that Budd, then eight months into his first term, was invited to attend the conference in Oslo to study climate change and the complex issues of addressing that global problem.

Charlie Dent, a Republican who represented Pennsylvania in Congress from 2005 to 2018, has been executive director of the congressional program at Aspen Institute since 2020. He also served with Budd during his early years in the House.

“Our congressional program has been around for about 40 years,” he said, and members of Congress are invited to attend. Budd, he said, was included for the trip to Oslo, where energy policy was discussed, because he reviews and votes “on issues involving energy policy.”

Dent said about 21 members of Congress were part of that trip, invited by the institute. The institute’s report shows that Ted and Amy Kate Budd were among 18 members of the House who attended, most with their spouses/partners. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) represented the Senate.

Mark Meadows (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Mark Meadows (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Aspen Institute produced a 91-page report on topics such as the need to be carbon neutral by 2050 and the global commitment to that. Its list of attendees from the House included Meadows and David Price, a Democrat from Durham who is retiring this year in representing the 4th District.

“The conference focused on the impact of different energy policies,” Felts said. “What was made clear was US energy requirements cannot yet be met by a forced transition to alternative energy without placing significant hardships on working families.

Rep. David Price

“Sadly, the Biden administration, supported by Cheri Beasley, didn’t care and shut down the Keystone Pipeline and continues to slow down the permitting approval process for more oil exploration. Now, thanks to these Biden/Beasley policies, the working families of North Carolina face almost $5 a gallon gas prices with Beasley’s fellow Democrats laughing it off and telling working families to go out and buy a $50,000 electric car if they don’t want to pay that much for gas.

“And that’s the sort of Biden policies Cheri Beasley would be a rubber stamp for in the US Senate.”

Dent said that Budd’s trip to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 2019, a summit about the internet, big data, artificial intelligence and other issues of freedom, followed the same policy. This event was sponsored by several other think tanks, and Budd was one of 10 members of the House and two senators who attended at MIT.

Democrats criticize the trips

NCDP Chair Bobbie Richardson

The issue here appears to be one of optics during an election season. Budd is an avowed conservative who votes against most spending plans in Congress. He campaigns on being a small-town guy from Advance who fights against big-government Democrats in Washington, D.C.

But those contrasting images also create a target, and Dory MacMillan, a spokesperson for Beasley, quickly took a shot at that target.

“The same special interests that spent millions to get Congressman Budd through the primary also paid for his luxury trips around the world,” she said in a statement for WGHP. “It’s the latest example of how Congressman Budd is another corrupt politician who wants power at all costs and plays by his own rules to help himself.”

Said NC Democratic Party Chair Bobbie Richardson in a statement for WGHP: “Congressman Budd is a corrupt Washington politician who took tens of thousands of dollars in special interest money to go on luxury trips while failing to deliver results on the critical issues facing North Carolinians.”

Chris Cooper

Felts responded: “Unlike Cheri Beasley who tries to hide her support of Joe Biden’s pro-inflation, weak border security, high gas prices agenda, Ted has always been very transparent about his support of policies that create new jobs for the working families of North Carolina. More and better jobs for individual North Carolinians mean more and better opportunities for all North Carolinians.”

Chris Cooper, a government professor and elections expert from Western Carolina University, said that “when politicians talk of ‘the swamp,’ this is exactly the kind of thing they’re referring to. There is nothing illegal here. Nor is there anything particularly out of the ordinary.

“But the cozy relationships between third-party groups (whether they be formal interest groups, or groups that are politically active in other ways) and elected officials certainly contributes to distrust in politicians and lack of efficacy in the political process.”

Does it matter to voters?

The bottom line is this: Do such trips and treatment matter to voters? Incumbent Republican Thom Tillis appeared headed for defeat to Cal Cunningham in 2020 until last-minute revelations about Cunningham’s indiscretions pushed voters to Tillis.

In the case of travel excursions, sometimes they matter, and sometimes they don’t, Heberlig said in an email response to questions sent by WGHP.

“Voters do not like politicians getting special treatment by donors and interest groups,” he said. “Voters are rightly concerned that the policeman will be more responsive to the interest group than their constituents.”

Cooper agrees that they are too common in some cases.

“These trips, and other trips like them, are unlikely to ‘matter’ in a short-term electoral sense,” he said. “If they did, we’d likely replace all 435 members of congress in November. But they do matter in terms of the long-term feelings that average people have towards government and those who govern them. And the effect is not a positive one.”

Said Heberlig: “There is little evidence, however, that voters vote against politicians who accept these trips. There needs to be strong evidence of corruption before many votes shift. Even then, most voters will continue to support politicians from their party.”