Around the World in 25 Days
CONGRESSIONAL abuses of privately funded travel aren't exactly news, but the scope of congressional gluttony still has the power to shock. A report by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service tallied nearly $50 million worth of free travel by members of Congress and their staffs between January 2000 and July 2005. According to the study, 11 House offices, including the entire GOP leadership, racked up $350,000 or more in subsidized travel; 10 offices reported 200 or more trips by the member of Congress and staffers. There were 200 trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy.
Former representative Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.) and his wife went to London, courtesy of Brown & Williamson Tobacco, on the most expensive trip reported: $31,171. The second-priciest was Florida Democrat Robert Wexler's trip to Kazakhstan, underwritten by the Jewish Congress of Kazakhstan at a cost of $29,951.
Susan Hirschmann, as chief of staff to then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), managed to take $49,000 worth of trips in just two years before revolving into the private sector: She had 90 days of subsidized travel in that time, most of it accompanied by her husband, an official at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose $35,000 in travel costs were also picked up by travel sponsors.
The trips included four days in Orlando on amusement park industry safety, seven days in Italy (described simply as "educational," as was the trip to Morocco), and a week in Hawaii on aviation. The grandest of all was in August 2001, a 25-day, round-the-world tour that stretched from Scotland (Ripon Society) to Israel (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to South Korea (Korea-United States Exchange Council), Taiwan (Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce), Malaysia and Singapore (Heritage Foundation).
The report points up the inadequacy of the lobbying reform bills that have passed both chambers. Yes, travel can be valuable, educational and mind-broadening for public officials -- which is a good reason to have the government pay for it if it is important enough to do. But there is no justification for having companies and others with interests before Congress pick up the tab -- especially when the tab is $500 a night.
The Senate version of lobbying reform would require approval by the ethics committee along with a certification by the lawmaker that the trip is "primarily educational (either for the invited person or for the organization sponsoring the trip)" and has "a minimal or no recreational component." Lobbyists wouldn't be able to pay for, arrange or go on trips, and lawmakers and staff would have to provide detailed itineraries. This is an improvement over existing rules, but still offers ample opportunity for abuse once attention has faded.
The House, meanwhile, ducked the issue by slapping a semi-moratorium on travel (just until the election is safely over, and even now, travel is okay if approved by the ethics committee) and passing the buck to the ethics committee. The panel held a hearing on the issue Wednesday that concentrated largely on beefed-up disclosure rather than limits. "As a general rule, I think the answer is to disclose it all and take your lumps," said the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.). But the sorry history of congressional travel abuses suggests that the lumps are few and far between, and that once public and media attention are diverted, Hawaii beckons, on the corporate dime.