Being in Congress Has Perks

Cable, Travel Troubles Resolved Fast for VIPs

Posted October 17, 2011 at 6:55pm

Tired of lousy customer service from your cable company or the airlines? Maybe you should run for Congress.

Despite increasingly strict rules governing gifts for Members of Congress and administration officials, some companies still provide special customer service perks to lawmakers, staff and top officials in Washington, D.C. — ranging from a quicker response when the cable goes out to double-booking privileges with airlines.

“The last thing you want is the people who could legislate or regulate you out of business to be pissed off at your customer service,” said one longtime Washington advocate familiar with the VIP customer care programs.

At 10 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day when one wireless industry lobbyist got a call from a lawmaker who was frustrated that the Internet at his neighbor’s Washington law firm had been out for days, the lobbyist called the Internet service provider that was his client.

“I’m sure 20 years ago when the rules were a lot more lax, there was probably a lot more than this,” the consultant said. “I think companies today are very careful.”

“Virtually every big office has some preferential treatment for VIPs,” another telecom industry lobbyist told Roll Call. “I know the wireless industry does it. … If you’re a chief of staff or a prominent Member, more times than not you just call the lobbyist and then boom — you’re priority.”

“It’s just another example of special interests taking care of Members of Congress and their staff,” he added.

Current and former employees and lobbyists for wireless, cable television and Internet providers interviewed for this story — most of whom declined to be identified because they are not authorized to discuss internal practices — said some companies provided a dedicated phone line for government officials. Others said the system was less formal, a kind of unofficial agreement that lawmakers should call lobbyists when they have a problem.

Some perks reach beyond the Beltway. Most major airlines have phones lines dedicated to customers on Capitol Hill, aides and lobbyists told Roll Call. To accommodate their unpredictable travel schedules, Members are allowed to reserve seats on multiple flights but pay only for the one they board.

A spokesman for Delta confirmed the airline has  a Congressional call desk and allows Members to double-book flights. United Continental Holdings Inc., US Airways and American Airlines, all of which are rumored to have similar practices, did not return Roll Call’s request for comment.

“We get on every single flight,” said one Capitol Hill aide familiar with process. “Every offices uses it. … The scheduler uses it for Members and chiefs of staff who fly.”

The perks have long raised the ire of consumer advocates.

“They are treated completely differently from the time they book their ticket until the time they land at the airport,” said Kate Hanni, director of Flyers Rights, an airline passenger advocacy organization.

Members of Congress, diplomats and Supreme Court justices are also given free parking in special lots at two Washington-area airports — 89 spaces out of about 8,000 at Reagan National Airport and 97 reserved out of 25,000 total spaces at Dulles International Airport, according to Rob Yingling, a spokesman for Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Under House ethics rules tightened in 2007, lobbyists and the organizations that employ them, including corporations that have in-house teams, may not give gifts of any value, whether in-kind or material, to lawmakers or their aides. That includes event tickets, meals, an airplane upgrade or services that can be monetized. The same goes for the Senate. In September, the Obama administration proposed extending the gift ban from political appointees to all government workers.

But speedy service to fix an Internet connection or avoid a flight layover is not so easy to put a price on and therefore is accepted as a way of doing business inside the Beltway. Some lobbyists contrasted the programs with Countrywide Financial’s controversial VIP loan program that provided discounted home mortgages for public officials and other prominent figures.

“A lot of service-oriented vendors give special treatment, red-carpet service to Members,” said Kenneth Gross, who heads the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. “Typically, they have not been viewed as gifts unless it’s a service that can be valued, one that you’d have to pay for if you could get.”

Lobbyists familiar with the workings of Comcast, the primary cable and Internet provider in the Washington area, said the company — whose angry customers have launched websites to document their service complaints — has for years provided special, expedited care for important Members of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.

“I knew about it but didn’t know any particular details,” said David Beckwith, who served as the vice president for communications at the National Cable Television Association from 2000 until 2002. “[Comcast] had effectively a list of customers who were considered to have influence. … It’s not like there were specific criteria for joining.”

“The number that you gave was a flagged number,” said a longtime cable industry lobbyist who left the business in 2010. “Sometimes people would get flagged when they go into the system.” He added that the number was also used for friends and family.

Two spokesmen for Comcast insisted the company does not have a VIP program or special phone number for lawmakers or other influential players in Washington.

Beth Bacha, a spokeswoman for the company’s northeastern division, said that last year the company started giving all employees a few cards with a special number on it — which she would not share — to distribute to anyone having problems with Comcast service. That number goes to a pool of customer service representatives who handle “escalated” situations.

“I am not aware of there being another number,” she said. “Truthfully, I don’t know what to tell you. We do not have a VIP program.”

A Comcast customer service manager told a Roll Call employee who inquired about the VIP program that it does exist, but that the person was not eligible.

“So the VIP program is for a certain … let’s see. I’m trying to figure out how best to say it,” the customer service representative said. “Your account is not marked as a VIP customer, but you are a VIP customer to us at all times.”