As the Conservative Political Action Conference kicked into gear Thursday morning, its official social media pages began plugging an esoteric policy item: a new agreement limiting an Arab airline’s operations in the United States.
“President Trump has taken an important step to enforce our trade deal with Qatar and level the playing field for American workers and the UAE is next,” declared CPAC’s Facebook page. “Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation Jim Burnley will be here today to explain why this is so important.”
Burnley was scheduled that morning to kick off a panel discussion titled "Do not Pass Go! How Government Is Killing Capitalism,” during which he would hail an emerging agreement between the U.S. and Qatar preventing Qatar Airways from operating flights from U.S. airports to countries other than Qatar.
In the long, venerated history of CPAC, rarely has such a random topic been so prominently featured. But there was a reason that Burnley landed a panel to wax about an obscure airline policy. He is currently a registered lobbyist working on behalf of American Airlines, one of the three air carries that make up the Partnership for Fair and Open Skies, a trade group pushing heavily for the Qatar deal. And the Partnership, it turned out, had ponied up six figures to underwrite CPAC 2018.
The group had done so on the recommendation of Scott Reed, a veteran Republican consultant who has lobbied for the Partnership since 2017, and for American Airlines and US Airways since 2015. Reed, the Partnership’s campaign manager, “felt it was important to make sure we were speaking to this important audience,” according to Partnership spokesman Greg Mueller, the president of CRC Public Relations.
The Conservative Political Action Conference has long billed itself as the premier showcase for various constituencies and ideas that comprise the conservative movement. But if you want to show yourself off to the yearly gathering of influential Republican activists and policymakers, you’ve first got to pay a price.
Think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations are paying tens of thousands of dollars to support this year’s gathering in Oxen Hill, Maryland. And in exchange for that money, they get to help shape the programming.
For the Partnership, which is seeking U.S. government action to counter airlines that they say are unfairly subsidized by Gulf state governments, the money appears to be paying dividends.
This is the second year in which the Partnership has supported CPAC financially. This year, it’s a “presenting sponsor,” meaning it paid $125,000 to support the event. According to materials provided to sponsors, that money gets the group two logos on the main CPAC stage, two ads in the conference’s glossy program, and two marketing emails and twelve social media posts from official CPAC accounts. It also comes with two tickets to the conference’s ritzy Ronald Reagan Dinner.
Those are the official perks, anyway. Unofficially, sponsorship provides a far more valuable benefit. It gives sponsors access to pre-conference planning meetings, where they can shape the actual programming of the event by recommending topics and guests for CPAC panels.
Billed as informal consultations about the general direction of the event, the meetings are actually efforts by the American Conservative Union—the organization behind CPAC—to reward financial support with influence over the content of the event, one longtime ACU insider told The Daily Beast. “That’s one of the bigger benefits of sponsorship. [ACU chairman Matt] Schlapp has very much made it known that if you sponsor, and the higher you sponsor, the higher the chances your speaker and your panel topic will happen at CPAC.”
That source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Schlapp and ACU executive director Dan Schneider “have really amped up the level and the benefits to sponsorship in that you have much more aggressive input with respect to speakers and topics.”
Some organizations have taken advantage of the system in creative ways. One America News Network, the upstart Fox News competitor, sponsored CPAC in 2015 and 2016. That sponsorship got OANN access to the green room for the main conference stage, through which the most prominent guests passed before and after their speeches. The channel used that access to secure coveted interviews with a number of Republican presidential candidates.
But, more often than not, it is business entities, not media outlets, that are underwriting the conference for the access and promotion that it brings. And at the center of that system is Schlapp, who did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to running CPAC, Schlapp also has lobbying clients who have interests before the annual conservative confab. Schlapp runs Cove Strategies, a firm that has, until this year, represented Delta Airlines, another of the Partnership’s three members (the third is United Airlines). Delta paid Cove Strategies $80,000 for its work.
Disclosure forms show that, after a little over a year lobbying on FAA funding bills and general aviation issues, Schlapp shifted his focus in the fourth quarter of 2017 to Open Skies agreements, the deals governing Qatari and UAE access to U.S. airports. He also shifted the target of his lobbying efforts from Congress to the White House, where he remains a trusted confidant of President Donald Trump.
That raises red flags, according to Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, an ethics watchdog group. “If the lobbying groups who pay six figures to sponsor CPAC can determine what is discussed at CPAC, then the conference looks an awful lot like a pay-to-play operation,” Fischer said in an email. “It looks even more shady if the head of CPAC is leveraging the credibility of the conference to advance the interests of the clients who are paying him.”
The Partnership's presence at CPAC is not the first time that Schlapp’s for-profit and non-profit activities overlapped. In 2013—when Schlapp sat on the ACU board, but before he chaired it—Cove Strategies inked a deal to lobby for the Motion Picture Association of America, the film industry’s leading trade group. The next year, MPAA was a CPAC sponsor. ACU, which had previously been highly critical of MPAA efforts to crack down on internet piracy, began using its website to promote the group’s efforts to combat it, without any mention of its business arrangement with Schlapp firm.
Schlapp dropped MPAA as a client last year. He no longer represents Delta either, a spokesperson for the company said. Disclosure forms indicate that relationship ended some time this year. But the Partnership was also a sponsor of CPAC last year, putting up thousands of dollars to back the event after signing with Schlapp’s lobbying firm in March 2016.
For some CPAC sponsors, financial backing for the conference can serve similar goals to a lobbying deal with a prominent Republican influencer. Legacy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association, or the Republican National Committee are already household names among CPAC attendees. But for smaller groups, or trade associations pushing more obscure policy agenda items, making conservative activists and Republican political figures aware of one’s pet issues is a crucial first step.
For the Partnership, visibility among Republicans is of particular importance. Like many in the Washington influence industry, the group appears to have courted Democrats more forcefully in the runup to the 2016 election, when most in Washington expected an easy Hillary Clinton win. In 2015 and 2016, the group paid nearly $9 million to four consulting firms run by prominent Democrats: SKDKnickerbocker, the Messina Group, Beacon Global Strategies, and the Dewey Square Group.
When Trump scored an upset victory, the Partnership needed to ensure it kept up relations with Republicans as well. It hired CRC, a prominent conservative firm, and took Greer’s advice to back the first CPAC of the Trump era, where the president himself spoke.
The Partnership’s defenders and representatives say its CPAC backing is not an attempt to buy its way into the good graces of prominent Republicans. The issues it’s pushing—fairness in international trade deals, crackdowns on government-funded competitors to more market-disciplined American companies—are tailor made to Trump’s brand of politics, they say. What might not have gone over so well with a conservative crowd just five years ago is suddenly squarely in the mainstream of Republican policy.
“This is a fair trade and trade enforcement issue,” said Mueller, the group’s spokesman. “It’s right in line with the America first policies the President ran and won on, and it’s right in line with the conservative base at CPAC. This issue is at the heart of the Trump Administration and the conservative movement.”
But tensions linger between the more protectionist strain of Trump’s Republican brand and conservatives who have promoted free trade for decades. The tension bore itself out on Thursday morning, during Burnley’s panel discussion, when CPAC’s billing of the event as a paean to free markets drew the ire of Tim Carney, a Washington Examiner columnist, American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow, and a longtime critic of “crony capitalism.”
“Burnley's contention, cheered by ACU's Schneider, is that our government is killing capitalism by allowing foreign companies to compete with Burnley's client,” Carney wrote in a column on Thursday. “Maybe it represents change, and the triumph of Trumpian protectionism. More likely, it represents the status quo: conservatives, at the hand of revolving-door lobbyists, selling out free enterprise for the sake of corporatism.”