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WASHINGTON - Rep. Michele Bachmann solidified her place in the national spotlight in November when she gathered thousands of Tea Party activists in front of the U.S. Capitol for a "House Call on Washington," to stop the Democrats' health care bill.
Months later, official expense reports show that the boisterous, 10,000-person rally to rein in big government and stop runaway spending cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $14,000.
Bachmann and three other lawmakers split the cost for a private company to arrange staging and a sound system, using their official congressional member allowances. Joining her were Reps. Tom Price of Georgia, Todd Akin of Missouri and Steve King of Iowa.
Spending tax dollars on partisan events is practiced on both sides of the aisle. Democrats spent more than $9,000 in public money the week before the "House Call" rally to unveil the health care bill at an event outside the Capitol building attended by several hundred.
An ethics group has raised questions about Bachmann's use of her congressional website to promote the Tea Party rally. But several Washington ethics attorneys and experts say that paying for the event's $13,600 bill with official funds likely fell within congressional rules, so long as it was not campaign-related.
"Unless it's billed as a campaign event, or campaign donations are solicited, or there's a concerted program of endorsements for candidates based on party affiliation, I don't think that they ran into any issues," said Stan Brand, a former general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Learning that taxpayer funds were used did strike a note of discomfort with Twin Cities Tea Party co-founder Deanna Boss, who arranged for more than 100 Minnesotans to attend the rally. Boss said she would have preferred that private donors had financed the event, given her and other activists' criticism of excessive government spending.
"I mean, we're broke," she said, referring to the national debt. "Every penny counts here."
Dave Dziok, Bachmann's spokesman, said the event was cleared by relevant ethics committees. Asked if a political rally is a necessary use of taxpayer money, Dziok said, "We're just operating within the rules that were given to us."
A 'press conference'
While Bachmann's event drew about 10,000 activists from around the country, organizers were careful not to characterize it as a "rally," instead calling it a "press conference."
Lawmakers frequently invite ordinary citizens to press conferences to support or oppose legislation, but few come close to the scale and raucous nature of the "House Call" event.
Speaking through a giant sound system, dozens of GOP lawmakers warned the sea of protesters -- who held signs like "Save Grandma Unplug Pelosi" -- about the dangers they saw in the health care bill. Included in the lineup were conservative actors Jon Voight and John Ratzenberger, and radio host Mark Levin, who said Democrats "don't know what they're in for next November."
Bachmann, like most of the speakers, directed her address to the crowd alone, beginning her speech with "You came! And you came to your House!" Following the speeches, the activists fanned out to find their representatives in the halls and confront them about the bill.
The liberal-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint alleging that Bachmann had used her official website to promote "grassroots lobbying," which is prohibited under House rules. CREW also said organizers inappropriately bypassed permit requirements by calling it a press conference.
In response to inquiries from the Star Tribune, a spokesman for the Committee on Administration, which oversees members' official expenses, sent a statement originally crafted to address the CREW complaint.
"Initial review of the information provided indicates that the event held by Rep. Bachmann meets the necessary criteria to qualify as a press event," wrote committee spokesman Kyle Anderson. "Within that context, eligible related expenses would be payable from the [member's official allowance]."
CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan contends that the event was far from a press conference, citing, in particular, the lack of a question-and-answer session.
But a Republican aide whose office was involved in planning the event said: "It was a press event that was open to the public. A lot of people chose to attend."
Eric Roper • 202-408-2723