In the Loop: Sen. Chambliss proves that lame ducks can still fly


Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) is leaving Capitol Hill — but not before swinging through Belgium, Portugal, Spain and Italy. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Sen. Saxby Chambliss will cap his congressional career with a little pre-retirement jaunt to Europe — courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.

Chambliss (R-Ga.) will retire at the end of this term, but before he goes he’s taking advantage of one of the top perks of being a member of Congress — the enviable codel, or congressional delegation. His swan-song junket with six of his Senate friends will take them — and spouses — to Belgium, Portugal, Spain and, of course, Italy.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

We hear there’s a stop at Lake Como on the tentative itinerary. Seriously. If they get there, may we recommend Ristorante Il Gatto Nero, with its breathtaking views of the water. And say hi to Clooney for us.

The male-only group of senators on Codel Chambliss, which includes Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a token Dem, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), heads over on the obligatory military jet with staff and escorts at the end of the August recess for some serious fact-finding. And what better time to find those elusive facts than a late-summer excursion to Europe?

Chambliss’s office confirmed the trip but said the “exact itinerary of the trip has yet to be finalized as it is over a month out.” The primary purpose is to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels to “discuss the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine with our European allies, and urge them to condemn Russian involvement, among other topics.” Until the end of the year, Chambliss is the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and also sits on the Armed Services Committee.

We expect the group will hit the countries’ popular cities. In Madrid, you gotta go for the 23-course menu at La Terraza del Casino. And what’s that saying, when in Rome? If you’re there, you might as well dine at any number of the Michelin-starred establishments such as La Pergola at the Rome Cavalieri hotel. Save room for some gelato at Giolitti.

It’s not Paris in the springtime, but it’s pretty darn close.

Ethics, by the numbers

In its first two years, the Office of Congressional Ethics was doing a brisk business, taking on 69 cases for review. But that number was cut almost in half in each subsequent session, the OCE reports. And from April through June, it only started one new preliminary review.

Now, there could be plenty of reasons for this. Politicians with better ethics? Or with a new watchdog, pols being more careful about slipping up or skirting the rules?

Maybe. Maybe not. The high volume in the early days was in part because in the 111th Congress there were several cases with multiple members of Congress under review — such as the Caribbean junkets led by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — and each person gets a separate case file.

But the more likely answer is that the newness of an independent board created to review potentially bad-acting members of Congress opened the floodgates for public watchdogs eager for a place to air their grievances. It was like a shiny new toy everyone rushed to play with.

The OCE released its quarterly report Wednesday. It breaks down how many matters it’s reviewed this spring.

The report also compares the committee’s activity over the previous congressional sessions. The 113th Congress has already surpassed the 112th and it’s only halfway over, but the OCE is unlikely to match the amount of activity from its first years.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist at Public Citizen, explained the early deluge and the later dropoff this way:

“All of us had been frustrated because prior to the OCE there was no place for public complaints” of ethics violations, he said. “It’s declined over time because OCE reviews them in a very cautious and prudent matter. . . . We’ve all adjusted to a more reasonable level of filing complaints.”

But Stan Brand, a D.C.-based lawyer who was general counsel to the House under Speaker Tip O’Neill from 1976 to 1983, doesn’t see it that way. Brand said that the existence of OCE is “overkill” and that the office has gone beyond its intended role. Maybe the fewer reviews of incidents is a product of the office being criticized, he mused.

“I think they got a lot of flak from lawyers like me, maybe they made a policy decision to be a little more exacting before they would go forward, and separate the cases that really had merit from those that didn’t,” Brand said.

Close to half of the complaints of alleged misconduct over the past five years has been related to campaign activity. Other offenses include travel and gifts.

Most recently, the OCE has referred to the House Ethics Committee campaign-related cases, one involving Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) and one involving Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.); as well as one related to payments to a former staffer turned lobbyist involving Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

1 firm, 2 ‘super’ hires

The deficit-fighting duo are back together again.

Former senators Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who fought crime — we mean the deficit — during the first debt-ceiling tussle, have been hired by the same D.C.-based public relations firm, Edelman.

Gregg and Conrad, who served side by side as ranking Republican and chairman on the Senate Budget Committee, were the brainchildren behind what later became the 2011 “supercommittee” — that bipartisan group meant to solve the deficit crisis but that instead put in motion the sequester — and after their retirement continued working as a pair on fiscal issues.

A news release from Edelman, whose clients include major corporations such as Starbucks and Microsoft, said the two would provide “public policy advice and communications counsel to a wide variety of corporate, association and nonprofit clients”

Conrad said he’s glad to be reuniting with Gregg. Gregg said it’s a “great opportunity” to work with Conrad.

Some congressional bromances are forever.

— With Colby Itkowitz

Twitter: @KamenInTheLoop, @ColbyItkowitz

Colby Itkowitz is a national reporter for In The Loop.
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