Privately Funded Trips Add Up on Capitol Hill

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Over 5 1/2 years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers accepted nearly $50 million in trips, often to resorts and exclusive locales, from corporations and groups seeking legislative favors, according to the most comprehensive study to date on the subject of congressional travel.

From January 2000 through June 2005, House and Senate members and their aides were away from Washington for more than 81,000 days -- a combined 222 years -- on at least 23,000 trips, according to the report, issued yesterday by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. About 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more, and 16 cost $25,000 or more.

"While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding missions," the study said, "the purpose of others is less clear." In addition, the lawmakers' financial reports that disclose the details of the trips are routinely riddled with mistakes and omissions.

Lawmakers and their staffers were treated to $25,000 corporate-jet rides and $500-a-night hotel rooms, the study showed. Lawmakers accepted thousands of costly jaunts -- one worth more than $30,000 -- to some of the world's choicest destinations: 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," the study reported. "They pondered welfare reform in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the future of Social Security at a Colorado ski resort."

Many congressional offices have voluntarily curtailed their privately funded travel since disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to conspiring to bribe public officials, in part with lavish overseas trips. But lawmakers and their aides still may accept travel for official purposes from private interests without limit.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) proposed banning such travel soon after Abramoff's plea. But lawmakers of both parties and in both chambers of Congress quickly resisted imposing significant new restrictions on the trips, which are a much-prized perk of office. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) won election to the post of House majority leader this year by running on a platform that included opposing the travel ban.

Boehner and members of his office were among the top beneficiaries of privately funded travel, according to the study, taking more than 200 trips during the 5 1/2 -year period reviewed. Others included the offices of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Boehner, said yesterday that privately funded travel by members of Congress is fully disclosed and "leads to greater understanding of the issues" at no cost to taxpayers.

One of the largest corporate sponsors of lawmakers' travel was General Atomics, a relatively small San Diego-based defense contractor that makes the Predator, an unmanned spy plane now in wide use by the United States and other countries. The study reported that the company "largely targeted congressional staff members, spending roughly $660,000 on 86 trips for legislators, aides and their spouses from 2000 to mid-2005." Some of the trips were valued at more than $25,000.

General Atomics' spending on congressional travel was more than that of many larger companies and was considerably higher than what other defense contractors spent. Microsoft, for instance, funded nearly $395,000 in trips during the period; SBC Communications Inc. spent about $205,000. Among General Atomics' defense competitors, Northrop Grumman spent about $12,000 on congressional junkets and Boeing spent about $13,000.

On trips paid for by General Atomics to Turkey and Australia, congressional staffers attended meetings with foreign government officials that the company was soliciting to buy the Predator.

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