Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Monday, June 05, 2006

  Congressional Junkets: The Center for Public Integrity slams Congress

Oh this new report from the Center for Public Integrity should be required reading. It tracks the privately sponsored trips that members of Congress and their aides have made during the Bush administration. This is the kind of information that will make voters angry this fall. Quite angry. And unless Democrats drop the ball badly, that anger will be directed mainly at Republicans, whose corruption is fully on display here in the most tawdry way.

The bottom line? During the last five and a half years, our Representatives and Senators, and their spouses and aides, have taken over 23,000 trips sponsored privately, by corporations and other groups "with business on Capitol Hill". The total value of these trips was some $50 million. Many were to top vacation destinations, and hundreds of these trips cost in excess of $10,000.

Lawmakers are prohibited by law from accepting trips from lobbyists. The trips in question are paid for by non-lobbyists, a practice that remains legal if dubious ethically. What will voters think of these junkets?

It looks especially bad for the Republicans, no surprise. Here is CPI's chart of the top offenders. The ten Congressmen who took the most trips (more than 200) are all Republican members of the House. And of the eleven Congressmen who accepted trips worth more than $350,000 in total, nine are Republicans.

The same page also lists the ten most expensive privately-sponsored trips, which cost in the range of $30,000. Some of these may have educational value of some sort, though most appear to be thinly disguised junkets.

Congressional ethics rules permit lawmakers and aides to take privately sponsored travel in connection with their official duties, but state that trips shouldn't be "substantially recreational in nature." Yet thousands of them approved in recent years have been to such prime vacation spots as Paris, Rome and the Colorado Rockies.

As the author of this report states...

While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding missions, the purpose of others is less clear.

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.

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.

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....

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.

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.

No doubt excuses can be found, and will be found, for a Congress that appears to be almost perpetually on vacation. So listen to what some serious-minded critics of this kind of corruption have to say:

"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."...

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."...

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.

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.

For less responsible members of Congress, though, privately paid junkets have become a way of life, as the CPI report documents. Although the worst offenders nowadays are Republicans, it's not as if Democrats are even remotely immune from junket mania.

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.

How do we know that these privately paid vacations are a potential embarrassment? Well, for one thing the House Appropriations Committee already bans its members from taking any privately sponsored trips, in order to "do away with the appearance of impropriety," according to the Committee spokesman. Secondly, the CPI found that many of the mandated disclosure forms about the trips' sponsors were left blank or filled out so vaguely that it was hard to pin down who was footing the bills.

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....

But [the agenda] doesn't list the trip sponsor.

If the Democrats are wise, they will promote legislation HARD for an outright ban on privately funded trips for legislators. I know that such legislation stands little practical chance of making it through this Congress, and that there are certain non-profits whose agendas would be inconvenienced by such a ban. But there are times to clean house, there are times to seize a political weapon and use it to full effect against these corrupt Republicans, and this is such a time.

And in fact a report today in The Hill states that Democrats are thinking of trying to amend a Republican lobbying-disclosure bill to include an outright ban on privately-funded trips (as well as other measures to curb corruption). That makes the CPI report all the more timely. It's time for the netroots to make a real issue of this brand of corruption.


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