Have perk, will travel

June 12, 2006

Members of Congress and their aides are willing to sacrifice a lot to keep their jobs - privacy, regular work hours and employment security, for example. But as House Speaker Dennis Hastert discovered, don't ask them to give up lavish junkets to exotic places at the expense of folks looking for their official help.

No matter how fishy such travel might look to critics and political opponents, this is one perk the denizens of Capitol Hill refuse to give up.

Little wonder. An extensive review of almost six years' worth of disclosure forms by journalistic and public interest groups revealed lawmakers and staff members took at least 23,000 trips valued at almost $50 million courtesy of corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups with a stake in the business of Congress.

This travel - some of which seemed in direct violation of House rules prohibiting travel financed by lobbyists and most of which seemed dubious for its purported "educational" value - is such a way of life for the legislative branch that Mr. Hastert was forced to back down on a promise to do away with it.

But the lawmakers are taking a calculated risk that could backfire as the results of this research - by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service - become accessible to voters online. Currently, such records are available only on Capitol Hill, and the self-policing system doesn't provide for any analysis.

If voters can easily see how the folks who write the laws and make decisions are regularly treated to $25,000 corporate-jet rides and $500-a-night hotel rooms in places such as Paris, Hawaii and Italy by hosts with a direct financial interest in legislative business, they may have second thoughts about incumbents, especially in what is already shaping up to be an anti-incumbent year.

Marylanders are not among the most frequent and lavish travelers, but the whole privately paid travel culture - closely related as it is to campaign contributions - taints members of both parties.

Members such as former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who resigned from Congress last week under a cloud because his office was closely linked to the bribery and influence-peddling schemes of Jack Abramoff, argued for years that privately paid congressional travel saves taxpayers the cost of important fact-finding missions.

Taxpayers would doubtless fare better, though, if all those on the congressional payroll spent more time actually on the job.

After objections to the travel ban, Mr. Hastert scaled back his ambitions to a brief suspension through this year's elections that hasn't even won final approval yet. Voters will surely see through that. At a minimum, Mr. Hastert should direct his colleagues to begin enforcing the travel rules as they exist. That doesn't even require a vote.

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