Legislators, staff took 23,000 trips since 2000

June 06, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Join Congress, see the world. Join a congressman's staff, see more of it.

Private groups, corporations or trade associations -- many with legislation that could affect them pending before Congress -- paid nearly $50 million since 2000 to send members of Congress and their staffers on at least 23,000 trips overseas and within the United States, according to a study released yesterday.

The trips included at least 200 journeys to Paris and 150 to Hawaii, room rates of up to $500 a night and some high-flying on corporate jets that cost up to $25,000 a trip, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service.

"Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations -- often taken in the company of spouses or other relatives -- wrapped around speeches or seminars," the report said. "In many instances, trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."

Congressional aides took more than 70 percent of the trips, the study found.

While the travel isn't illegal, the report shines a light on how business is often done in Washington. It comes in a congressional election year when one of the biggest issues is corruption.

The findings also emerged as Congress remains deadlocked on legislation that would restrict contacts with lobbyists and impose new ethics standards on members. As scandals have emerged over the past two years, lawmakers moved to ban privately financed travel and do away with meals and gifts from lobbyists. Eventually, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed versions of ethics legislation, though neither banned privately financed travel. Negotiations to reconcile differences in the bills haven't begun.

Under current law, lobbyists are prohibited from paying for congressional travel. But a federal investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff uncovered a scheme in which Abramoff used nonprofit groups to pay for extravagant Scottish golf outings for lawmakers and staff members.

A separate study by Political Money Line, a nonpartisan Washington watchdog group, has found that the number of privately financed trips by members of Congress declined this year. Between 2000 and 2005, members of Congress logged an average of 1,100 trips a year. Through April of this year, members had reported 291 trips.

Advocates of tighter ethics rules said the recent travel decline reflects public attention to the Abramoff case and other scandals.

"As soon as the attention starts to fade, the travel will start to increase," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group.

The study released yesterday found that Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, and his aides accepted about $500,000 in trips since 2000. DeLay is resigning from Congress on Friday under a cloud cast by the investigation into Abramoff, who arranged trips for him.

The top 10 travelers identified in the study are all members of the House of Representatives and include House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican. Spokesman Kevin Madden said Boehner met all congressional requirements for his travel, including prompt and public disclosure.

"Travel funded by private interests relieves taxpayers of having to cover the costs of educational travel," Madden said.

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