MEDILL NEWS SERVICE > Power Trips: Congress hits the road
North Carolina congressional trips top $1 million
By JEFFERY K RITTER
MEDILL NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON- North Carolina lawmakers and their staffs took about 470 privately funded trips at a cost of nearly $1.2 million during a five-year period beginning in 2000.
All told, members of Congress and their staffs took about 23,000 trips paid for by private sponsors at a cost of $48.9 million from Jan. 1, 2000, through June 30, 2005, according to an analysis of official travel reports compiled by Medill News Service, the Center for Public Integrity and American Public Media. The data come from trip reports filed by lawmakers to congressional ethics committees.
Privately funded travel by lawmakers is a legal but increasingly controversial practice, thrust into the spotlight after the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this year in a federal influence-peddling investigation. Congress is considering ways to regulate its relationships with outside sponsors, including placing limits on travel paid by outside sources.
Currently, travel is allowed as long as it helps educate the members or their staffs and is not paid by a registered lobbyist, like Abramoff, or a foreign agent.
Rep. David Price, D-4th District, and his staff took about 30 privately financedtrips, totaling $128,000, according to the data analysis. Nationally, the average expense per congressional office in the five-and-a half year period was about $70,000. Lawmakers in office for all of part of the 66-month timeframe were included in the analysis.
Price took 18 trips, including eight sponsored by the nonprofit Aspen Institute at international destinations that included Helsinki, Barcelona and Moscow.
“There’s some travel that really should be encouraged, and there’s other travel that shouldn’t occur at all,” Price said. “It’s not like we don’t already have some rules.”
Price said he is particular about the types of privately funded trips he accepts.
“The only kind of travel I do is travel that’s not attached to a lobbying agenda,” Price said. “The rules are drawn more permissively than that.”
The Aspen Institute was the largest sponsor of congressional trips overall, spending more than $3 million. Institute officials said nearly one-third of the current Congress has participated in an Aspen-sponsored program. Funding for the Institute comes from donations by other nonprofit organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Pew Research Group.
Price said a typical seminar last four to five days, and topics have included U.S.-Russia relations, the global environment and educational reform. The majority of the presentations are made by foreign policy experts, not politicians.
Price said the Institute is “scrupulous” about inviting members of both parties to its conferences. The agenda is not political, but policy-driven.
“Members ought to do more travel of that sort,” Price said.
Last January, Price, along with three of his Democratic House colleagues, authored a bill that would eliminate all trips sponsored by organizations that receive lobbyist contributions, as well as trips underwritten indirectly by lobbyists. But it stalled in committee.
“Nobody should assume there aren’t rules already,” Price said. “What we’re trying to do is say, ‘Let’s tighten it.’ There’s travel of an educational nature that should be protected. But there’s also travel which has the potential for undo influence.”
Price said the discussion at Aspen Institute and other nonpolitical seminars could be beneficial to many of his congressional colleagues. But after the practices of Abramoff came under the spotlight and charges were filed against former House Majority Leader Tom Delay for illegal fundraising, Congress must find a way to reform itself, he said.
“One bad apple can spoil the bunch,” Price said.
Congressional travel, by NC Congressional office, 1/2000-8/2005:
- G.K. Butterfield (D-1st): 7 trips, $11,100
- Bob Etheridge (D-2nd): 23 trips, $90,000
- Walter Jones (D-3rd): 16 trips, $26,600
- David Price (D-4th): 31 trips. $128,300
- Richard Burr (R-5th) 31 trips, $75,000
- Virginia Fox (R-5th): 7 trips, $9,500
- Howard Coble (R-6th): 76 trips, $155,000
- Mike McIntyre (D-7th) 19 trips, $33,000
- Robin Hayes (R-8th) 37 trips, $66,000
- Sue Myrick (R-9th) 27 trips, $37,000
- Patrick McHenry (R-10th) 3 trips $3,500
- Charles Taylor (R-11th) 9 trips $32,700
- Melvin Watt (D-12th) 52 trips $150,000
- Brad Miller (D-13th) 11 trips, $21,300
- Richard Burr: 1 trip, $1,000
- Elizabeth Dole: 12 trips, $20,700
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