Senior House committee Republicans and Democrats frequently travel at the expense of companies and associations in the industries they oversee, according to financial records released yesterday.
The trips are legal, as long as they are paid for by businesses and not by registered lobbyists. But the sheer volume of them -- along with the alluring destinations, not notably related to the business at hand -- could add impetus to calls for greater restrictions when the House ethics committee carries out a directive issued by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last month to "look at the whole travel issue."
Hastert's call for the ethics committee to provide members with clearer guidelines followed a spate of news reports about trips that lawmakers had taken in the company of lobbyists, often with a nonprofit group listed as paying the tab.
The reports showed that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) owed a total of between $125,000 and $315,000 to three law firms, and collected $439,300 for his legal defense fund last year. He reported a trip to Palm Springs, Calif., at the expense of the Barbara Sinatra Children's Center, and a trip to Miami at the expense of the DeLay Foundation for Kids.
The committee leaders' travel was reported in annual financial disclosure forms released yesterday, offering a comprehensive look at travel by members.
Consider the case of Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who in late February 2004 became chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful and wide-ranging panels. Three weeks later, Barton was in Boca Raton, Fla., for the annual conference of the Futures Industry Association. The $1,823 tab for flights and his hotel room was paid for by the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The next month, he and his wife, Terri, were off to Las Vegas for four days to attend a National Association of Broadcasters convention, with the industry group picking up the $4,984 cost.
Other industry-funded trips that year took him to Aventura, Fla., and Palm Springs. Among the sponsors of other Barton trips last year were the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said the Barton trips paid for by trade groups seeking to influence government policy "illustrate why it is simply not enough to prohibit lobbyists from financing travel and lodging for members of Congress." He added: "It is incumbent on the House to take action in this Congress to strengthen its ethics rules governing the financing of trips."
Brooks Landgraf, Barton's press secretary, said the chairman "embraces opportunities to discuss emerging innovations and the changing dynamics of trade and commerce by meeting with industry experts [out] in the field."
"It is impossible to legislate in a vacuum, and Congressman Barton understands his duty as a lawmaker to search outside the Beltway for solutions in forming sound public policy," Landgraf said. "He's learning about these issues from both sides. He also meets with groups who are on opposing sides of the same issue. It all balances out."
The top Democrats on the committees also took trips sponsored by organizations with business before them. Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, took four trips paid for by such groups.
In January 2004, the Laborers' International Union of North America paid for his travel to its annual convention in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The next day, the International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents heavy-machinery operators, took him to Miami, where he spoke at one of its industry conferences.
In mid-November, Air France covered his trip from the District to New York, where the company held a dinner to honor a former executive. Later that month, the American Concrete Pavement Association, a trade association closely following the highway bill now wending its way through Congress, paid for the lawmaker's trip to its convention, also in Florida.
Jim Berard, the Democratic spokesman for the committee, noted that Oberstar did not choose the locations. "The location was chosen by the organization -- and they don't want to have a convention in Minneapolis in December," he said. "They want to have a convention in Florida in December. Not to attract Mr. Oberstar, but to attract their own members."
Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the ethics committee, reported taking a trip to Spain in June, sponsored by a consortium of about 20 information technology and software companies. He said the group was formed explicitly to fund the week-long trip to Bilbao, which he said was designed to build trade relations between his congressional district and the Basque region of Spain.
Mollohan said the trip resulted in trade agreements that benefited his constituents. "This is really a solid business trip that is yielding wonderful results," he said.
The ethics committee is stalled because of a partisan dispute on another matter, so any change in the rules is most likely months away. Liberal interest groups seized this week on the case of a house sale by Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) as an example of why the committee needs to be in business.
The Copley News Service reported on Sunday that a defense contractor bought a house owned by Cunningham, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, and then put it up for sale almost immediately. The contractor sold the house at a $700,000 loss. Cunningham issued a statement yesterday saying that the sale was "an above board transaction." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington called it a "shady housing deal."
Among local lawmakers, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) disclosed a five-day trip to India paid for by the Confederation of Indian Industry, a four-day trip to Jacksonville, Fla., with the Democratic Leadership Council and a day trip to Nashville paid for by the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. He reported holdings of $368,000 to $847,000.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), running to succeed retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) next year, reported a seven-day Aspen Institute trip to Lausanne, Switzerland, and compensation for food and lodging on a three-day trip to Aventura, Fla., from the Commonwealth Fund and Harvard. He disclosed assets of $1.3 million to $3.3 million and liabilities of $20,000 to $100,000 in a Baltimore property.
Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) took four trips of two to four days each to Hot Springs, Va., Miami, Palm Beach and Aventura with an anti-tobacco advocacy group and industry associations of investment, railroad and wireless communications companies. He reported properties worth $101,002 to $265,000 and mortgage and other debts of $125,003 to $365,000.
House Government Reform Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) disclosed receiving two three-day trips, one to Barcelona from RSA Security Inc. and another to Las Vegas from the Consumer Electronics Association.
Also yesterday, the office of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) provided a copy of an amendment she had filed on May 19 showing that a trip to Honolulu in January 2004 had lasted seven days instead of 20 days, as stated on her disclosure form.
Research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Madonna Lebling, as well as staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Susan Schmidt, contributed to this report.