Ground the D.C. Jet Set

Monday, January 16, 2006

WHEN REP. TOM DeLay (R-Tex.) had to attend his arraignment on money-laundering charges in Texas last year, he got there in the style to which he had become accustomed as House majority leader: on a corporate jet, in this case one owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

There are many hard calls to make about how to tighten rules governing lawmakers and lobbyists. Banning members of Congress from using corporate jets as their own private air taxi service isn't one of them. This practice -- as seductive for lawmakers as it should be offensive to their constituents -- ought to be prohibited.

Congressional leaders of both parties, and other influential lawmakers such as committee chairmen, are especially frequent fliers. According to a report in The Post last May by R. Jeffrey Smith and Derek Willis, a dozen current and former leaders, in both houses and both political parties, flew on corporate jets at least 360 times between January 2001 and December 2004; Republican leaders took 265 trips, Democrats 95. Mr. DeLay and then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), now seeking to take Mr. DeLay's place, were the two top users, accounting for at least 140 trips between them; Mr. Blunt alone hitched a ride on about 30 companies' planes.

Members of Congress don't fly free on corporate planes, but neither, for the most part, do they pay anything near full freight. Senate rules require payment of first-class airfare if the route has regular commercial service and full reimbursement if no scheduled service exists. Under House rules, lawmakers must reimburse companies for the equivalent of first-class airfare if the plane was scheduled to fly the route in any event. While specially arranged flights theoretically require reimbursement for the full cost, the Post investigation found that "virtually none of the reimbursements matched the actual cost of the unscheduled flights." Moreover, lawmakers' corporate trips aren't easily found in the public record. Their use of the aircraft is buried in campaign records.

From the companies' point of view, the attraction of offering these congressional flier programs is obvious: Lawmakers appreciate the service, and the corporate flight crew tends to include an on-board lobbyist. The flights are "part of the cost of doing business," FedEx spokeswoman Kristin Krause explained, saying they gave corporate lobbyists "an opportunity to meet members." BellSouth spokesman Bill McCloskey said the company gives rides to "people who are friendly to us" and "important to us," adding, "They could be in a position to help or hinder legislative action."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) well understands the benefits of this travel: During the 2000 presidential campaign, he tapped a dozen companies and wealthy donors for use of their planes. Now the senator has proposed a lobbying bill, as has Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), that, while it would not absolutely ground such flights, would require that members pay fair market value and disclose where the plane was going, the purpose of the trip and who was on board. Rigorously enforced, such rules would make riding the corporate jet less attractive for lawmakers than chartering one on their own. But steering clear of flying the corporate skies is the wiser course.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company