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MEDILL NEWS SERVICE > Power Trips: Congress hits the road

Congress travels the world, private sponsors foot the bill

WASHINGTON — Outside groups representing interests as diverse as nuclear energy and telecommunications have paid nearly $50 million since 2000 to shuttle  members of Congress and their staffs around the world from Kazakhstan to Kansas City, Paris to Palm Springs.

In fact, staffers often outpace their bosses in the number and the costs of trips that they took to far-flung edges of the world.

Overall, members of Congress went on globe-trotting excursions costing $18.9 million. But private interests paid much more -- $30 million – to finance the trips of congressional staff members, who often are instrumental in shaping policy.

Michael Franc, vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said this makes sense because there are many more staffers than there are members.

"Staff serve as the member's eyes and ears and sources of a lot of their [member's] information on legislative matters," Franc said.

According to official travel documents analyzed by Medill News Service, the Center For Public Integrity and American Public Media, lawmakers and their staffs took about 23,000 trips between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 30, 2005.

Government watchdog groups have criticized privately sponsored trips as an opportunity for lobbyists to gain access to lawmakers – access unavailable to most Americans. But congressional insiders say such trips offer an outside-the-Beltway perspective on policy issues.

These trips, ranging as high as $30,000, are permissible under congressional rules. But they have been cast in a negative light since former lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption charges after it was revealed that he had paid for trips in violation of the rules.

Under the current rules, trips cannot be underwritten by registered lobbyists or foreign agents, and must be connected to official duties. Members of Congress and their staffs may accept expenses for official travel only from a private source with a direct link to the event or the location being visited.

Sponsors include a wide range of nonprofits and corporate entities. In some cases, critics say, lobbyists dodge congressional rules by setting up nonprofits as fronts to bring lawmakers on trips where lobbyists tag along.

Only lawmakers and staffers – not lobbyists – are required to list details about travel expenses. This makes the process hazy at best, said Craig Holman, a legislative representative at Public Citizen, a watchdog group.

"You can't track anything on these trips except for the fact they've happened," Holman said. "The disclosure is intended to be exceedingly vague. No one has a clue what was going on."

As Congress considers reform in response to the furor over Abramoff’s lobbying excesses, there have been numerous efforts to rein in lawmakers’ travel. Last month, the House passed a bill that would temporarily require ethics committee approval for any privately sponsored trip. That still needs to be reconciled out with a similar Senate bill that does not place a moratorium on travel. 

Since House Speaker Dennis Hastert supported a ban on travel earlier this year but did not actually impose it, lawmakers have been skittish about taking trips.  Former Sen. John Breaux, D-La., called that regrettable.

"They're missing an opportunity to be able to visit actual facilities or plants, or visit with average people," said Breaux, who retired in 2004 and now works at Patton Boggs, a Washington law firm with a large lobbying practice. "You're not going to get the feeling by sitting in an office in Washington or in a hearing room."

Franc went a step further. "It ought to be the role of a staffer or a member of Congress to be able to weigh information accordingly."

Republican congressional offices traveled more than Democrats, accounting for 56 percent of the dollars spent. With Republicans controlling Congress, the GOP has all the committee chairmanships, and consequently more staffers.

Republican leadership offices had the most-traveled staffers. Hastert's staff took the most trips and had the highest tab of any congressional office. Other Republican leadership staffs, including those of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, were among the offices with the most travel. 

But Democratic members of Congress were on the road more than Republicans, with more than $10 million worth of trips. Republican members' trips totaled about $8.5 million.

Holman was surprised that Democrats out-traveled Republicans, but said, "Neither party has any monopoly on corruption or integrity."

Rep. Gene Green of Texas and five other Democrats were in the top 10 traveler list among members of Congress as measured by overall cost. Green topped the list with about $175,000 worth of trips, but  Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee; Democrat Robert Wexler of Florida, and California Democrat George Miller were not far behind with about $170,000 each.

The two most traveled staffers worked for key Republican leaders. Brian Gaston, an aide to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and now chief of staff for Majority Whip Roy Blunt, had the biggest travel expenses, about $88,000 spread over 39 trips.

He was closely followed by Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff for DeLay, who resigned as majority leader in January and will retire June 9 because of legal entanglements. Hirschmann racked up about $85,000 in travel expenses despite only taking 18 trips and leaving DeLay’s office in mid-2002.

While the average trip cost about $2,200, many had much higher price tags. Former Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., took the most costly, sponsored by Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co.:  $31,000 to London with his wife in July 2000, when he chaired the Energy and Commerce Committee.

And pricey does not always require international travel. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, racked up more than $20,000 – all in transportation costs -- for a one-day trip from Washington to Hidalgo, Texas, to accept an award as The BorderFest Border Texan of the Year.

According to its Web site, BorderFest attracts about 50,000 people over a five-day period to the award-winning celebration of Texas border culture.

Spokesman John Drogin said Cornyn flew on a private jet because he didn't want to miss any Senate votes.

"His constituents wanted him to be there, and he wanted to be there, but he wanted to vote and take care of business," Drogin said. 

BorderFest President Joe Vera said the group paid for a private jet for Cornyn “because it’s hard to have a dinner without an honoree.”

Some of the top travel sponsors, such as the Aspen Institute and the Nuclear Energy Institute, are consistently underwriting pricier trips.

Of about 4,000 travel sponsors analyzed, the top 10 paid for 25 percent of all trip costs.

The No. 1 sponsor The Aspen Institute spent about $3.5 million ferrying members of Congress to policy conferences. The money for many of Aspen’s trips comes from private foundations such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Ford Foundation, via the institute's Congressional Program, founded in 1983 by former Sen. Dick Clark, D-Iowa.

While the institute says its policy backgrounders are nonpartisan, it spent more than twice as much on Democrats as on Republicans over the period analyzed to such places as the Bahamas to study Brazil and Finland to study Islam.

The travel records show The Aspen Institute spending nearly $2.5 million on trips for Democrats and around $1 million on Republicans.

Several calls were made to former Sen. Clark, but they were not returned.

Sponsors vary greatly on how often and how much they spend on each trip, as well as whom they take. Some pay heavily to focus on a smaller pool, while others bring mostly staffers to annual, low-cost retreats.

In November 2004, the American Australian Association sponsored a trip lasting more than a week and costing about $110,000 for four Democratic representatives and their spouses. The group traveled to major cities in Australia after the enactment of the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

The association sent two Republicans on a similar trip in February 2005.

"We thought it was better to have the Democrats on one trip and the Republicans on another," said the organization’s president, Francis Cassidy.

The trips are "generally designed to give Congress an understanding of Australia, and the bond that we have with the U.S. for future posterity," Cassidy said.

The Congressional Institute Inc., a nonprofit educational and research organization with a board composed of several lobbyists, sponsors mostly staff trips to Washington-area resorts.

In February 2003, the institute sent 55 Republican House and Senate staffers to Greenbrier, a high-priced spa and resort in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia, for a policy planning conference. The annual three-day event cost about $65,000 --$1,200 per attendee. Other retreats hosted similar-sized groups of staffers.

The institute is not alone in its ties to lobbyists.

The Ripon Educational Fund, which during the time period covered by the analysis had financial and administrative ties to the Ripon Society, a Republican public policy organization, often sponsors trips to European capitals. Prominent Washington lobbyist Richard Kessler runs the Ripon Society, which came under fire in January when a government watchdog group reported that lobbyists tagged along on Ripon-sponsored trips.

In August 2003, 19 members and nine staffers went to London on a roughly $310,000, week-long trip sponsored by Ripon. They included high-profile Republican members, such as House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley of Ohio, and staffers from Hastert's and DeLay's offices.

Sponsors such as Ripon can use travel as "part of the triumvirate of tools that very well- financed K Street lobbyists use," said Holman of Public Citizen. The other two pillars, he added are gifts and campaign contributions.

According to the data, Ripon paid for almost $1 million in trips, making it the sixth-highest spender.

Breaux said that just because a lobbyist goes along on a trip, that does not automatically mean a lawmaker will be all ears.

"The fact that they're trying to tell you that story is what a lobbyist does," the former Louisiana senator said, "and then you make a decision about what you're supposed to do."

But Mary Boyle of left-leaning Common Cause said voters don’t get an equal chance to tell their story.

"Ultimately it is the public who pays for this," Boyle said. "If members of Congress are just listening to people who can pay for them to go on trips, they're not listening to constituents."


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  2001 Medill News Service, Northwestern University