GLENN DALE, Md. - On a sunny Tuesday, House members who belong to the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus left suits and ties behind, grabbed shotguns and headed for the firing range.

HARAZ N. GHANBARI/APWhich way to the caucus event? This sign points the way for a gathering in Glen Dale, Md. There is no public accounting for the special interest money that finances special events and social activities for legislators.

In a Washington equivalent of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, more than a dozen lawmakers took advantage of a light schedule at the Capitol to play hooky.

The lawmakers got expert shooting advice from Olympic double trap champion Kim Rhode while they mingled with representatives of the outdoor-sports industry who footed the bill for the "Great Congressional Shoot-Out" and barbecue.

There was no public accounting for the special interest money. No talk about votes or hearings back at the Capitol. Just the hollers of "pull" and the pop, pop, pop of shotguns aiming for clay targets flying through the sun-filled sky.

The sportsmen's caucus is one of hundreds of informal lawmaker clubs that have sprung up in the Capitol to advocate special causes with little public accountability.

Congress has allowed the caucuses to be affiliated with foundations that can raise unlimited amounts of money from special interests to finance social events and activities without having to disclose expenses or donations - as lawmakers must for campaigns, political action committees and other groups.

The Associated Press surveyed Congress, identifying more than 500 such clubs and their members. Caucus events financed by special interests included golf tournaments and Caribbean trips.

The Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation rounded up gunmakers Beretta and Winchester, the National Rifle Association, Wal-Mart and outfitters Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops to sponsor the shootout, according to the invitation.

At a recent Congressional Hispanic Caucus golf outing, Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., hit the course with a lobbyist for the Teamsters union and a retired admiral who heads the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"It wasn't an accident," Mr. Rahall said of the pairing of his threesome. The lawmaker hails from an energy-producing state where Teamsters are influential.

The Congressional Internet Caucus lets such as AT&T, Google and Microsoft serve on an advisory committee, giving industry a chance to bend lawmakers' ears and show off their latest technology.

The sugar growers' lobby credits its access to the House Sugar Caucus and the Senate Sweetener Caucus for helping to maintain quotas that keep cheaper foreign sugar out of the U.S. market.

"In the past 10 years we have steadily been building momentum, and I think certainly having a caucus out there having leaders telling our good story is one of the reasons why," said Phillip Hayes of the American Sugar Alliance.

The caucuses bring like-minded politicians together to promote particular issues. The groups also can aid lawmakers' fundraising connections, raise their profiles on issues that affect politically powerful interests back home and provide hobnobbing or recreation that costs them nothing.

Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., boasts membership in 98 such clubs. At least 189 lawmakers belong to a dozen or more, an Associated Press survey of Congress found.

"I don't think I've ever attended," Mr. Burns, R-Mont., said of caucus meetings. "I do what my growers tell me. I know we grow a lot of sugar beets in Montana."

"People will vote for a budget resolution that blocks your ability to provide decent funding for health or education, and then join a caucus or write some letter on behalf of a program for some disease," he said.

"Members often create caucuses around particular interests or specific legislative goals," he said. "They're bound to attract the special interests that have policy concerns in that area. And they create opportunities for financial help, for campaign contributions to those members."

Arkansas Democratic Rep. Marion Berry's campaign noted on a fundraising invitation that he is chairman of the Blue Dog Task Force on Health, Education and Welfare. A fundraising flier for Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., billed him as vice chairman of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus.

NASCAR great Richard Petty posed for photos with lawmakers as he visited Capitol Hill on behalf of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, which holds a Washington rally every other year attended by lawmakers in the Automotive Performance and Motorsports Caucus.

Many of the businesses that make race car parts belong to the association. Their message to Washington: "We're good guys. ... We don't bother you, you don't bother us," Mr. Petty said. "Just realize we're trying to make a living."

Arts Caucus and Entertainment Caucus members got to hobnob with stars, including actors George Wendt of Cheers and Patty Duke and her son, Lord of the Rings actor Sean Astin.

"We realize we live in a society that is drawn to celebrities," said Robin Bronk, executive director of the Creative Coalition, which sponsors such events. "We try and use the power of the entertainment industry to shine a spotlight on issues of social importance." This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. More headlines...

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