With change on the horizon, privately funded travel plummets

Trips by lawmakers and staffers decline by nearly 50 percent, recent data show

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As the House of Representatives prepares to vote Thursday on sweeping changes to its gift and travel rules, new data show that members of Congress and their aides are accepting privately funded trips at a precipitously declining rate.

According to travel disclosure forms for a one-year span ending June 30, 2006, obtained by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity, corporations, trade groups and nonprofits spent more than $5.4 million to send lawmakers and congressional staffers on roughly 2,700 trips. During the previous one-year period, sponsors spent nearly twice as much — more than $10.3 million — on about 4,700 trips.

Top Trip Sponsors and Takers
Members of Congress and their aides reported taking more than 2,700 privately funded trips — valued at more than $5.4 million — from July 1, 2005 to June 30, 2006, according to federal disclosure filings analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.

During that period, the offices of 10 legislators had privately financed travel totals exceeding $45,000, and 10 organizations sponsored more than $50,000 in trips.

Lawmakers whose offices accepted travel worth more than $45,000:

  • Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)
  • Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA)
  • Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)
  • Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN)
  • Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA)
  • Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA)
  • Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY)
  • Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-OH)
  • Rep. Christopher Shays (R-CT)
  • Rep. Don Young (R-AK)

Sponsors spending more than $50,000 financing congressional travel:

  • American Association of Airport Executives
  • American Israel Education Foundation
  • Aspen Institute
  • Brookings Institution
  • Congressional Economic Leadership Institute
  • Consumer Electronics Association
  • Fu Jen Catholic University
  • German Marshall Fund of the United States
  • Inter-American Economic Council
  • International Management
Source: House and Senate travel disclosure forms

Congressional watchdogs believe that the intense public scrutiny prompted by the Jack Abramoff lobbying and bribery scandal over the past two years has left some members gun-shy about accepting free trips, even for legitimate purposes.

"Word got around pretty quickly that it was time to cool it off for a while," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based public interest group.

The Center for Public Integrity reported last year that privately sponsored travel had become a booming industry. According to congressional disclosure forms, lawmakers and their aides took at least 23,000 trips, valued at nearly $50 million, over a 5½-year period ending June 30, 2005. While some of these trips were educational in nature or otherwise constituted official business, as the rules require, others appeared to be poorly disguised vacations, underwritten by sponsors with interests on Capitol Hill.

Rules changes would have a big impact

When the House convenes Thursday, the Democrats' top priority will be to significantly tighten the chamber's gift and travel rules, said Stacey Bernards, spokeswoman for incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.

According to a summary prepared by the House Democratic leadership, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act would, among other things, "ban lobbyists and the organizations that employ them from planning, organizing, requesting, financing, arranging, or participating in travel for members or staff, except for one day travel to visit a site, attend a forum, participate in a panel, or give a speech. The ethics committee would be required to develop guidelines for minimal lobbyist involvement for one day/one night travel."

This change could have an immediate impact on the travel habits of members of Congress and their aides. The Center found that of the 100 private sponsors that spent the most on congressional travel during the most recent year studied, 45 employed or retained registered lobbyists and therefore would be prohibited from paying for trips in the future. Those 45 sponsors spent more than $1.15 million on travel between July 1, 2005 and June 30, 2006.

The Center's study last year found that between January 2000 and June 2005, lawmakers and their aides reported accepting at least 90 trips from sponsors or co-sponsors registered to lobby the federal government, an apparent violation of the existing rules.

While the contents of the bill are subject to change, the new rules do not address at least one potential opening for lobbyists: They would not restrict the funding of travel by nonprofit organizations that have lobbyists on their governing boards. This group includes top trip sponsors such as the Aspen Institute, the Ripon Educational Fund and the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute.

Travel by House members that would not be prohibited under the rules change would have to be pre-approved by the ethics committee "to ensure trips are connected to official duties, the amount spent is limited to reasonable expenses, and the destination is related to the purpose of the trip," according to the summary.

The new rules also would prohibit lawmakers from accepting all gifts and meals from lobbyists and the organizations that employ them. Currently, members can accept one-time gifts worth no more than $50, and $100 in total gifts from a single lobbyist or employer organization during a calendar year.

If approved, the new travel provisions would take effect March 1. The proposed rules already have angered some in the lobbying community who feel they are being targeted for the ethical lapses of a handful of lawmakers and staffers.

"This is not a lobbying scandal," said Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "This is a scandal of ethics, and you cannot legislate morality."

Miller predicted that many of the lawmakers who will vote to prohibit lobbyists from organizing or attending congressional trips will be knocking on their doors for campaign contributions next election season.

"Why don't they ask each member to sign a pledge that they won't take [campaign] money from lobbyists?" Miller asked. "The whole thing is hypocritical."

The Senate also is pushing for lobbying and ethics reform early in its session, although it's unclear to what degree the chamber will clamp down on travel. Incoming Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., plans to reintroduce a measure that would both require lawmakers to get ethics committee approval before accepting trips and ban all meals and gifts from lobbyists. Others, including freshman Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have indicated that they will push for a ban on privately financed travel.

Travel and perks persist

Rep. Joe Barton,
R-Texas

In terms of number of trips taken and money spent during the one-year period ending June 30, 2006, the office of Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, then-chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, appears to have been the biggest beneficiary of privately sponsored travel. According to disclosure records, Barton's office reported accepting 54 trips — one taken by the congressman and the rest by staffers — worth about a total $87,000.

In November 2005, for example, two Barton staffers went to Los Angeles on a trip sponsored by Microsoft. On their disclosure forms one aide listed the purpose of the trip as "ratings, Internet and trade issues," while the other described it as "Mtgs [Meetings] and policy bfgs. [Briefings]/XBox launch," referring to the unveiling of the Xbox 360, a Microsoft video game system.

Barton's office, which declined to comment for this report, also sent nine committee staffers to Las Vegas last January for the annual International Consumer Electronics Show. According to news reports and promotional material from the trip sponsor, the Consumer Electronics Association, conference attendees stayed at the plush Bellagio hotel on the Las Vegas strip, scored tickets to concerts by Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder and rubbed elbows with NFL Hall of Famers Dan Marino, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.

Among legislators themselves, two Democrats stood out: Reps. Jim McDermott of Washington and Henry Waxman of California personally accepted travel worth roughly $40,000 each. McDermott took a pricey trip to Hawaii for a conference on U.S.-China relations while Waxman flew to Montego Bay, Jamaica, for a conference on education reform. Both trips were sponsored by the nonprofit Aspen Institute.

Neither Waxman nor McDermott's offices responded to the Center's requests for comment for this report.

The Center's other findings regarding the most recent travel data include:

  • Republican lawmakers and their staffers traveled slightly more than Democrats, taking 55 percent of the trips. Roughly 52 percent of the more than $5.4 million in sponsored travel was spent on Republicans.
  • Staffers continue to be the predominant travelers, taking nearly 1,900 trips, about 70 percent of the total. Lawmakers reported slightly more than 800 trips.
  • Between policy briefings and PowerPoint presentations, travelers found time to squeeze in other activities. Expenses listed on filings included a $180 round of golf, $49 for a ticket to a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and a limousine ride worth more than $100.
  • Congressional travelers brought along companions at the expense of the sponsor on roughly 9 percent of the trips. Most were spouses or children. But at least five lawmakers traveled with a sibling, two brought along a grandchild, and one took a niece. One staffer brought her boyfriend to a three-day retreat on national security.

At least five sponsors spent at least $100,000 apiece on travel for the year studied. Leading the way was the American Israel Education Foundation, which spent more than $500,000 on 57 trips — 55 of them to Israel — for travelers from both major political parties. By comparison, the foundation spent roughly $950,000 on travel during the 5½-year period ending in June 2005.

Foundation spokesman Josh Block defended the group's sponsorship of the trips, characterizing them as educational.

"While in Israel, members have the opportunity to meet with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, academics, journalists, elected officials, hearing from speakers representing diverse views across the political spectrum, and get a personal, firsthand view of issues of great importance to American policy in the Middle East," he said.

While the travel expenditures of some groups grew considerably, those of others plummeted.

General Atomics, a San Diego-based defense contractor, was the top corporate sponsor of travel in the Center's last study, spending roughly $660,000 on 86 trips. During the most recent one-year period analyzed, however, it spent less than $7,000 on six trips to San Diego.

Other explanations for less travel

While experts agree that increased public scrutiny has played a role in the decline of sponsored travel, there also may be other, less obvious reasons for the drop-off.

Travel appears to have declined as the midterm elections neared, bottoming out at 66 trips reported for July 2006. Observers speculate that the election season may have kept some lawmakers too busy on the campaign trail to participate in trips.

Watchdog groups also said they have noticed that many lawmakers are beginning to use their campaign treasuries and political action committees to fund travel that in the past was paid for by private sources. Travel financed through personal campaign accounts generally requires less disclosure about the trip's destination, cost and purpose.

With the proposed limitations on what kind of groups can sponsor trips, travel paid for by campaign accounts could become even more common.

"In an ideal world, all privately funded travel would be banned," said McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center. "But, if they are going to travel, official business should be paid for by official funds."

Database Editor Helena Bengtsson contributed to this report.

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