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.
"[It's] useful and very helpful, in fact, when you go down and talk to the government officials, to have congressional people go along and discuss the capabilities of [the plane] with them," Tom Cassidy, chief executive of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company's aircraft-manufacturing subsidiary, told the center.
The center's study illustrates how widespread the practice has become, for both Democrats and Republicans. Of the 25 individual lawmakers who accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel during the period, 17 were Democrats. Of the two dozen congressional offices on which private trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were Republican, the study said.
At least 150 of the disclosure forms scrutinized by the center did not list a sponsor. After the center contacted her, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), a candidate for Senate, amended her 2003 form to fill in the name of the group that paid for her two-day visit in November to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla. -- the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. A spokesman for Harris called the omission "a staff error."
After he was contacted by the Center for Public Integrity, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) reimbursed the Cuban government and John A. Catsimatidis, a grocery store owner, $1,922 for expenses incurred by his son, Steven, during a trip that Rangel, his wife and his son took to Cuba to study the ecology there in 2002. House rules permit sponsors of lawmakers' trips to cover the cost of only one accompanying relative. A Rangel spokesman said the office had not been aware of the rule.
The House had more frequent fliers than did the Senate during the period. The 10 congressional offices that accepted more than 200 privately sponsored trips each were all in the House, as were the 11 offices that had travel expenses exceeding $350,000 each. The 10 most expensive trips were taken by members of the House or, in one instance, a House aide.
The study, which took nine months to complete, found many instances in which, the center said, "trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers." Several of the sponsoring organizations defended their trips, saying they provide lawmakers with an opportunity to discuss issues in a relaxed setting.
"If you try to talk to a member for any great length of time about your issues while they're in Washington, they're simply too busy," Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, told the center.
The center's study was co-sponsored by American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service.