When House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) left Washington last August to attend a friend's funeral in his home state and give a political speech in Ohio, he didn't wait in long security lines for a nonstop commercial flight.
Instead, he hopped aboard a waiting private jet at Dulles International Airport that belongs to the corporation that owns Cracker Barrel stores -- just one of about 30 companies with legislative interests before Congress that have provided this service to Blunt.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), center, was among the leaders who either did not respond or declined to disclose details of their flights.
(Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
Blunt is not alone in enjoying frequent corporate jet travel. He and 11 other current or former House and Senate leaders -- each with exceptional power to determine the fate of legislation and regulation -- flew on corporate-owned jets at least 360 times from January 2001 to December 2004, according to a review of records by The Washington Post.
Blunt and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) are the top two users of such jets among the current leadership, together accounting for at least 140 trips during the past two election cycles -- an average of one flight every 10 days. They are followed by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who used corporate jets for at least 38, 15, and seven flights, respectively.
The use of these jets remains one of the last corporate-financed perquisites of elected office allowed under congressional ethics rules, which permit lawmakers to fly on them to fundraisers and other events despite a welter of laws meant to restrain the influence of corporations in politics.
No limits exist on the frequency of such corporate flights, even though lawmakers have an annual taxpayer-financed allowance to cover the cost of flying commercial airlines on official business.
DeLay, whose travel with lobbyists has come under particular scrutiny in the past two months, has repeatedly said that he is being unfairly singled out for practices that are common on Capitol Hill. The Post examination of travel records for House and Senate leaders makes clear that all 12 have taken at least one corporate-financed flight.
The records show that flights were provided by some of Washington's largest corporate interests, including tobacco, telecommunications, business consulting, securities, air transport, insurance, pharmaceutical, railroad and food companies. Officials at some of these firms said that they granted requests for flights in the hope of currying favor with the leaders, that lobbyists were typically onboard their flights, and that they used the opportunity to press the interests of the aircrafts' owners.
Travel Is at a Discount
Although lawmakers must make some form of reimbursement for each flight, the payments are always a fraction of the actual cost and do not come from the lawmakers' pockets. Instead, they come from campaign funds contributed by corporate-run political action committees and other donors, including donations that in some cases nearly match the amount of the reimbursements.
A trip last year by Frist is illustrative: The Schering-Plough drug firm's political action committee gave the Senate Republican leader's political action committee $5,000 in mid-October. Frist's leadership committee paid Schering-Plough $3,204 on Oct. 27 to take the senator's staff members on a flight that he also took.
The company declined to say how much the flight cost. A spokesman for Frist said the company's jet took him from Washington to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he attended two fundraising events, and then to Nashville and Indianapolis before returning him to Washington.
Frist, who owns a share of a private jet, ranks fourth out of the eight members of the current congressional leadership in the number of corporate flights taken. Linus Catignani, who handles fundraising for Frist's political action committee, said all the trips were in compliance with federal election rules.
Three other current or former House and Senate leaders -- Blunt, Reid and former Senate minority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) -- also took in more money in campaign contributions from individual corporate political committees than they paid those companies for the use of their jets during the period studied.
Spokesmen for leaders in both parties said the jets are necessary to meet the lawmakers' busy schedules or quickly reach destinations not directly served by commercial airlines.