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MEDILL NEWS SERVICE > Power Trips: Congress hits the road

Conservative tax group shieds away from funding congressional travel

WASHINGTON -- One of the largest private sponsors of congressional staff travel may be getting out of that business now that a series of Washington scandals has tainted the public's view of privately funded trips.

The Tax Foundation, a conservative-leaning tax reform group established in 1937, has spent more than half a million dollars since 2000 to send congressional staffers overseas to study international tax and trade policy. The Tax Foundation's mission is to develop a simplified tax policy that “should not be used for political, social or economic agendas,” said Scott Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation.

But a major vehicle for sharing its viewpoint with congressional tax staff appears to be on the way out.

“There was a general sense among (congressional staff) that the climate was not right for them to travel so we did not do a trip this year and may not do one next year…,” Hodge said. “There was such sensitivity about some of the inappropriate trips that had surfaced that members of Congress were basically putting a halt to all travel irrespective of whether it was educational or not.”

The Tax Foundation has not been implicated in any wrongdoing.

Overall, members of Congress and their aides have trimmed their privately sponsored travel this year by two-thirds, according to a Medill News Service analysis of travel disclosure forms from Jan. 1, 2000, through mid-August 2006. They took trips worth about $2.7 million in the first eight months of this year compared with $8.3 million in each in the two previous years.

The amount of the Tax Foundation's travel expenditures and the recipients of those outlays help paint a portrait of how public charities such as the foundation convey their message on critical issues to Washington.

The foundation is the sixth largest financial sponsor of privately funded House and Senate staff travel between January 2000 and August 2006; the vast majority of the trips were for staffers who work on powerful committees that shape U.S. tax laws.

The organization picked up the tab for 63 different trips between 2000 and 2005 with an average cost of more than $8,000. Travelers generally went to Northern and Western Europe, though some flew to Australia, Argentina, Brazil and the Czech Republic.

“It's an important educational program for broadening the scope of congressional tax staff beyond Constitution and Independence avenues,” Hodge said in reference to the two streets that run alongside Capitol Hill. “Today's global marketplace requires a broader perspective on the interaction of tax policy between countries and how that affects businesses competing in a global marketplace.”

The staffers who take the trips tend to be unknown outside the Beltway, but their relative obscurity does not minimize the extremely influential role they play in drafting federal tax policy. The foundation only sponsored one trip for a member of Congress, Rep. Philip English, R-Pa.

“Members can only know superficially about all these issues, and that's why they have staff to advise them,” Hodge said. “So any time you can increase the knowledge base of staff you can improve public policy over time.”

In one instance, a Tax Foundation-sponsored trip to Geneva brought staffers face-to-face with former staffers who had taken positions at the World Trade Organization.

Hodge said three of the “senior tax people” at the WTO used to work at Ways and Means, the powerful House committee where all federal tax legislation must originate.

“There was a camaraderie there,” he said.

The Tax Foundation's philosophy on taxes closely mirrors that of President Bush and his important congressional ally, Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., Ways and Means chairman since 2001. In that time Thomas played a critical role in helping push the tax changes that the Bush administration wanted: cuts to the federal estate tax in 2001 and the reductions in taxes on capital gains and dividends two years later.

Thomas' staff was the number one recipient of Tax Foundation-sponsored trips, both in terms of dollars spent - more than $50,000 - and number of trips - six. The congressional staffs of Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas; Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; Rep. William Jefferson, D-La.; and Rep. Amory Houghton, R-N.Y., round out the top five congressional office recipients of trips sponsored by the Tax Foundation.

A past chairman of Ways and Means has since moved into a leadership role at the Tax Foundation. Former Rep. Bill Archer served as Ways and Means head from 1995 to 2001 and is a registered lobbyist for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The foundation stated on its 2004 and 2005 federal tax returns that it has not “attempted to influence national, state, or local legislation, including any attempt to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum.”

House and Senate ethics rules forbid registered lobbyists from directly paying for congressional trips; however, it is not uncommon for lobbyists to sit on boards of Washington nonprofits.

As recently as last year, one of the Tax Foundation's directors was registered as a lobbyist for Koch Industries, and another lobbied for Exxon Mobil Corp. in 2004, according to the Senate's Office of Public Records.

Koch Industries has been a prominent advocate of repealing the estate tax, said a report earlier this year by the government watchdog group Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy, a liberal think tank. The Tax Foundation also supports repeal of the estate tax.

Some legal experts believe the involvement of lobbyists with foundations that sponsor congressional travel can be perilous.

“It seems like slippery, if not dangerous, for lobbyists to run a foundation,” said Charles Tiefer, professor of law at the University of Baltimore.

But Frances Hill, professor of law at the University of Miami, said the ethical standard is based on whether there is a private benefit to the lobbyist from taking part in any non-profit group's activities.

“Lobbyists do not lose their civic right to associate just because they're lobbyists,” Hill said. “So if they want to be on the board of a nonprofit they are free to do so.”

Hodge said experienced and knowledgeable directors have to juggle the challenges of their varied responsibilities.

“As many board members have to do, you wear two hats,” Hodge said. “You have your professional hat and you have your hat as an advisor to a non-profit.”

Hodge said it is unlikely the Tax Foundation will pay for any congressional staff trips in 2007.


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  2001 Medill News Service, Northwestern University