Privately sponsored trips hot tickets on Capitol Hill

Study finds almost $50 million spent on travel for lawmakers, aides

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Over a 5½-year period ending in 2005, members of Congress and their aides took at least 23,000 trips — valued at almost $50 million — financed by private sponsors, many of them corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups with business on Capitol Hill.

Congressional travelers gave speeches in Scotland, attended meetings in Australia and toured nuclear facilities in Spain. They pondered welfare reform in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the future of Social Security at a Colorado ski resort, according to the forms.
A nine-month analysis of congressional disclosure forms for travel from January 2000 through June 2005 done by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service turned up thousands of costly excursions — at least 200 trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy. While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding missions, the purpose of others is less clear.

Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations — often taken in the company of spouses or other relatives — wrapped around speeches or seminars.

In many instances, trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers. Some — such as the Nuclear Energy Institute, Microsoft, Time Warner and The Walt Disney Co. — clearly have products to sell or programs to promote. The motives of others — the Congressional Institute or the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, for example — are less obvious.

The forms show that about 2,300 trips cost $5,000 or more. At least 500 cost $10,000 or more, 16 cost $25,000 or more, and the cost of one exceeded $30,000. There were $500-a-night hotel rooms, $25,000 corporate jet rides and other extravagant perks. Almost three-quarters of all trips were taken by aides, who often influence how their bosses vote, negotiate in committee and interact with other government officials. All told, the travelers were away from Washington for a minimum of 81,000 days — a combined 222 years.The analysis found many apparent violations of ethics rules. Disclosure forms show, for example, that at least 90 trips, valued at about $145,000, were sponsored or co-sponsored by firms registered to lobby the federal government. Ethics rules do not allow lobbyists to pay for congressional travel.

According to the forms, every bit of this travel was necessary.

"I think [legislators and staffers] are gaming the system," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington. "Education through travel is important, but it's just totally being abused. They give a one-hour speech and spend three days playing golf or tennis with their families."

In terms of private travel dollars spent, the office of Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who resigned as House majority leader in January after being indicted on charges of violating campaign finance laws, appears to have eclipsed all others. Records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity show that DeLay and his staffers accepted about a half-million dollars in trips during the 5½-year study period, although the office of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was only about $8,000 behind.

'Special kind of access'

Even if no favors are done for a sponsor, said Dennis Thompson, a professor of government at Harvard University, the trips "violate the principle of fairness. In order to get this special kind of access, you have to pay a lot of money." (Harvard and its affiliates spent about $370,000 on more than 200 congressional trips, primarily for speeches and conferences during the study period, records show.)

According to the analysis, both Republicans and Democrats traveled frequently: Of the two dozen congressional offices on which trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were occupied by Republicans. Of the 25 individual lawmakers who each accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel for themselves, 17 were Democrats.

Measured both in number of trips taken and in dollars spent, the House had more top travelers than the Senate. The 10 congressional offices that accepted more than 200 privately sponsored trips (counting both member and staff travel) all were in the House. The 11 offices with travel costs that exceeded $350,000 all were in the House. And the 10 most expensive trips identified in the Center's study also all were taken by members of the House or, in one instance, a House aide.

The ethics risk of such travel was demonstrated by the now-infamous golf trip to Scotland taken by then-House majority whip DeLay and his wife in the spring of 2000. The trip later was found to have violated House ethics rules.

The total cost of the trip — described on DeLay's disclosure form as "educational" in nature — exceeded $28,000 for the couple. The outing was sponsored by Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty in January to charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion.

The rules seem explicit enough: Lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden. Sponsored trips taken by members must be connected to their official duties, and all staffers' trips must be cleared in advance. And no gift of $50 or more may be accepted.

In theory, congressional travelers are trusted to distinguish between a visit to war-ravaged Sudan and a long weekend in Antigua.

In fact, the lines are regularly blurred and the rules virtually never enforced by the House and Senate ethics committees. Attempts at serious reform have faltered, and the system is largely self-policing. The legitimacy of trips is determined by the committees rather than by an independent body.

"The people making the judgments have a basic conflict of interest," Thompson said.

A way of life

For some members of Congress, taking sponsored travel has become a way of life.

Records show, for example, that the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar, accepted about $150,000 in trips during the 5½-year study period.

Most of Lugar's travel was at the expense of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit whose well-regarded seminars are attended by lawmakers from both parties, as well as by foreign scholars. Among the places Lugar and his wife went were Grand Cayman (reported cost for one trip: $6,273), Helsinki, Finland ($7,024), and Punta Mita, Mexico ($8,253).

In a written response to the Center, Lugar said he has "counted on these [Aspen] programs to find co-sponsors for significant legislation. … In addition, the programs allowed me to be able to make the case for what I felt was constructive progress with members of the Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Bush II Administrations."

Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas, accepted more than $175,000 in travel for himself and his wife, Helen, attending an Aspen Institute session in Rome ($9,059), for example, and a National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas ($4,072). The Greens took five trips sponsored by the Association of American Railroads, at a total cost of more than $19,000.

A member of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Green told the Center he will no longer take trips sponsored by lobby groups such as the rail or broadcasters' associations. He added, though, that he still will consider traveling at the expense of nonprofits like the Aspen Institute, which are "not just fronts" for special interests.

Although he and his wife went to resort towns such as Pebble Beach, Calif., and Jackson Hole, Wyo., as guests of the rail group, Green said he has never returned the favor. In fact, he said, he has sponsored legislation that "the railroads don't like," such as a bill that would prohibit remote control of trains carrying hazardous cargo.

"I've never done any Abramoff-type things," he said, referring to DeLay's golf outing in Scotland.In his seventh term, Green said he and his wife — a retired teacher who accompanies him on virtually every trip — played golf at Pebble Beach and other venues, but paid for it themselves.

Still, Green said he has decided to pare back his travel, and from now on will meet with groups like the rail association in either Washington or Houston.

All told, the Association of American Railroads spent about $450,000 on more than 160 congressional trips during the study period, most of them to highly desirable places. Association spokesman Tom White said such getaways "provide an opportunity for us to discuss our issues with the members in an atmosphere where you are not time-constrained. If you try to talk to a member for any great length of time about your issues while they're in Washington, they're simply too busy."

Reform efforts 'extremely disappointing'White added, "These types of trips are perfectly legitimate. If the law changes, obviously, we won't be doing [them]."

Responding to the Abramoff scandal, House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested in January that it might make sense to ban all privately funded travel for lawmakers and their staffs. But that idea quickly lost momentum.

The new House majority leader, John Boehner of Ohio, is himself a frequent traveler, having taken more than five months of sponsored trips from 2000 through mid-2005, with a total value of about $160,000.

Staffers in Hastert's and Boehner's offices did not respond to requests for comment on this report. In remarks to the Center for an earlier report, Boehner's press secretary Kevin Madden said, "Private travel often relieves a burden on the taxpayer."

Pending ethics reform legislation falls far short of a travel ban. The House bill would require the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to propose changes to the travel rules by June 15. In the meantime, it provides for voluntary review and certification of privately funded congressional trips "if the . . . sponsor of any such trip seeks certification."

The Senate bill would prohibit lobbyists from going along on trips and require more thorough disclosure — full itineraries instead of the amorphous accounts most travelers give now.

According to Holman, "Once Abramoff pled guilty, almost every lawmaker and their grandmother wanted to sponsor one of these reform bills. Then their enthusiasm began to wane. They're getting a little less nervous because of the lack of indictments."Craig Holman, campaign finance lobbyist for the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, calls both measures "extremely disappointing. I'm not going to back either of these. Let's not try to pull the wool over everyone's eyes and pretend there's been some sort of real lobbying reform."

Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, agreed that obvious junkets, such as DeLay's golf trip to Scotland, should be banned. However, he said, "This whole [Abramoff] scandal is being made out to be more than it really is. It's a small problem, and one I think everyone would agree could be done away with very easily."

Miller said he fears that genuine fact-finding trips to places like China and Afghanistan might become casualties of the anti-lobbying fervor. Such trips afford lawmakers "a lot of knowledge they can use to help them do their jobs here," he said.

Disclosure in vague terms

Congressional travel rules last underwent significant revision in 1995. In the Senate, the maximum value of a gift that could be accepted was reduced from $250 to $49.99. In the House, gifts were banned (though the rule was amended to match the Senate's in 1999). Both chambers decided that disclosure forms should be filed within 30 days of a trip. Before that, trips merely had been listed on annual financial statements.

Most seem to agree that, at a minimum, better disclosure is needed. Many forms are bereft of information that could be used by the public to determine whether a trip was justified.

In May 2004, for example, David Grimaldi, legislative counsel for Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., flew from Washington to Los Angeles on the tab of Clear Channel Communications for what was simply described as a "congressional staff visit." During that visit, the filing indicates, Grimaldi spent two nights at the opulent Shutters on the Beach hotel in Santa Monica, at a cost of about $550 per night.

Grimaldi said he could not recall details of the trip, and a Clear Channel representative did not return calls seeking comment.

The agenda designates 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 14 and 15 as "Free time for swimming, golf, tennis, shopping, etc." It also notes that DeLay was a scheduled keynote speaker on the 15th, and was to be introduced by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre. But it doesn't list the trip sponsor.At least 150 forms list no sponsor. In one such instance in 2003, Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., was a guest at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla., site of the Restoration Weekend event Nov. 14-16. Harris's form shows that her hotel room cost $1,032 and her meals $259.56. But it fails to reveal the trip's sponsor, itinerary or purpose, instead referring the reader to an attached three-page agenda.

Restoration Weekend is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative, Los Angeles-based nonprofit that, according to its Web site "is dedicated to defending the cultural foundations of a free society" and is led by David Horowitz, "a man who has been called 'the left's most brilliant and articulate nemesis'."

Asked about the failure to list a sponsor in the filing, Harris' chief of staff Fred Asbell acknowledged that the disclosure form "was not filled out properly." Her office later filed an amended form, naming the sponsor, stating the purpose of the trip and adjusting the hotel and meal costs downward, to $717 and $120, respectively.

A difference in destinations

There is no indication that either Grimaldi or Harris intentionally skirted the rules. But were their trips really necessary?

"I look for hot spots," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Las Vegas at the Bellagio — that sounds like a boondoggle.

Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat in her 10th term representing a district in upstate New York, is among those in Congress who travel infrequently. Most of the sponsored trips she's taken in recent years have been relatively inexpensive and mundane, although she did go to an Association of American Railroads legislative conference in Palm Beach in 2004."I think if members are going to be writing legislation regarding meatpacking plants, it would be helpful for them to see a meatpacking plant," Sloan said. "But no recreational trips. If you're there to give one speech, you don't need to be in Palm Beach for three days."

Slaughter said her personal policy on travel abroad is simple: "If you're not going over to work, don't go."

In the 1990s, she said, she took several trips to Europe at the expense of the Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency. But the arrangements were hardly luxurious: She toured a Turkish prison, was in Latvia "while [Soviet troops] were still shooting" at rebels, and stayed in a foul Lithuanian hotel room with a hole in the floor.

Fighting against a ban

With the exception of party leadership retreats, the House Appropriations Committee hasn't allowed its staffers to take privately funded trips since 1995. The aim was "to do away with the appearance of impropriety," said committee spokesman John Scofield. "It was more hassle than it was worth."

Public Citizen's Holman seconds taking this approach. "The abuses are so egregious and so widespread that it's just cleaner and easier to prohibit private travel altogether," he said. If a trip is crucial to a lawmaker's or staffer's understanding of an issue, Holman said, tax dollars should pay for it.

But there is rigid opposition to an outright ban.

In a March 9 letter, representatives of 35 religious and human-rights groups urged Hastert not to change the rules "in a fashion that will impede the continued ability of House Members and staff to travel on educational and fact-finding missions funded by non-governmental organizations. Many organizations in Washington engaged in the promotion and protection of fundamental rights around the globe find that the direct involvement of the United States Congress is essential to the effort to effect change in some of the harshest areas of the world," including Rwanda, Sudan and Colombia.

"It's clearly beneficial for these interest groups to make these expenditures," said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "They're not just doing this without a purpose."Few disagree with such a statement. But the necessity of privately sponsored congressional trips to appealing destinations remains suspect.

Stern said he is all for outside-the-Beltway education, and sees nothing nefarious in trips sponsored by universities and most nonprofits. "But if the trip is truly educational," he asked, "why do they have to go to exotic places?"

He thinks he knows why.

"The problem is human nature," Stern said. "We don't like to be educated in non-interesting surroundings."