In the next few days, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct is expected to recommend changes to the chamber's rules on privately sponsored travel, including measures that could strengthen disclosure requirements and close loopholes used by lobbyists.
However, the Center for Public Integrity has found that the current members of the committee are no strangers to taking privately funded trips.
More than half of that figure was spent on the lawmakers. The members took roughly 180 trips over the 5½-year study period, reporting expenses in excess of $550,000. Among the sponsors were corporations, trade groups and nonprofit organizations.From January 2000 through June 2005, the members — five Republicans and five Democrats — and their aides accepted about 400 such trips valued at nearly $1 million, according to a Center review of disclosure records.
The office of Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., the committee's ranking member, accepted about 80 trips worth more than $240,000 — the highest total among the 10 offices.
The Aspen Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that hosts policy seminars attended by lawmakers from both parties, paid for 14 of his trips, spending more than $110,000. The total included a 2005 China trip to Shanghai and Beijing that cost more than $18,000, and a $14,000 trip to Beijing in 2002. Berman's wife, Janis, went on both trips.
Gene Smith, Berman's chief of staff, said that the bulk of the congressman's foreign travel can be attributed to his being a senior member on the House Committee on International Relations.
"He's an international relations specialist," Smith said. "Part of the nature of that is to travel abroad."
The Democratic members took in excess of 140 trips — more than their Republican counterparts by a 4-to-1 margin. According to disclosure forms, the travel expenses of Democrats and their staffers also accounted for more than $690,000, roughly 70 percent of sponsors' spending.
Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, for example, was the committee's most-frequent flyer. The Ohio Democrat traveled about 60 times, incurring roughly $84,000 in expenses. Her aides took about 30 additional trips worth more than $45,000.
Tubbs Jones' trips included 2005 travel to participate in business roundtables in the Dominican Republic and Antigua sponsored by the Inter-American Economic Council; to see the re-creation of the slave ship Amistad in 2000 in Mystic, Conn., sponsored by Amistad America; and to appear on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher in Los Angeles in 2005, sponsored by the show.
She also traveled frequently for speaking engagements. According to her communications director, Tubbs Jones is in demand to speak on issues such as Social Security, tax and trade as the only African-American woman on the Ways and Means Committee. "The congresswoman doesn't want to do away with [privately funded] travel," Nicole Williams said. "But she does recognize that there is room for change."
While Democrats took the most trips overall (about 260), it was an aide to a Republican committee member who took the most expensive trip disclosed.
Christopher Caron, legislative director for Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., flew to Great Britain for a week in the summer of 2004 with his wife, Mary, at the expense of General Atomics. The San Diego-based defense contractor spent nearly $20,000 on their travel, which Caron described on his disclosure form as for a "day trip between London and Normandy Cemetery to meet with Battle Monuments Commission" on a "fact finding trip to study issue of military importance." (The Center reported earlier that General Atomics spent roughly $660,000 on privately sponsored travel during the study period, far more than did larger corporations.)
The ethics committee member with the lowest personal tally was Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who disclosed taking a $404 trip to Maryland in March 2005 to attend a two-day conference sponsored by the Public Governance Institute.
The office of committee Chairman Richard "Doc" Hastings, R-Wash., accepted about 40 trips worth more than $70,000. But Hastings traveled less frequently than some of his colleagues, taking eight trips worth roughly $18,000.
Travel by Hastings, founder of the Congressional Nuclear Cleanup Caucus, included a 2000 trip sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels Limited Inc. to visit its site at Sellafield, England; an energy symposium in Stuart Island, British Columbia, sponsored by construction and engineering firm Washington Group International; and a speaking appearance in Tucson, Ariz., sponsored by Waste Management Symposia Inc.
On June 12, five government reform groups sent a letter to the ethics committee, urging it to adopt a ban on privately sponsored travel or impose tighter restrictions.
"Privately-funded trips give private interests the opportunity to provide substantial perks to Members, while also having the Members as a captive audience during the trips for access and lobbying purposes," says the letter, signed by the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG. The groups cite the Center's study of congressional travel in the letter.
At a public hearing held by the ethics committee on June 7, Hastings defended such travel as essential to the work of the House. "The decisions we make have such far reaching impact — both across the country and around the world — that it is essential for members and staff to see firsthand the impact of the votes we cast," he said in his opening statement.
The public hearing, devoted to possible changes to House travel rules, was the first in the ethics committee's history.
As part of the ethics and lobbying reform package passed by the House last month, the committee set a June 15 goal for suggesting new rules. Once proposals are set, the full House is expected to vote on the key measures and then would have to reconcile its legislation in conference committee with a Senate bill requiring more complete disclosure.
Researcher Rachel Leven contributed to this report.