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Congress takes trips worth $14 million in 4.5 years

WASHINGTON - Criss-crossing the globe for speeches, conferences and fact-finding missions, members of Congress and their families have taken nearly $14.4 million worth of trips in the last 4 1/2 years - with private interests picking up the tab.

An analysis of congressional trips by Medill News Service in partnership with American Public Media's Marketplace program and American RadioWorks found that private interests spent $14,388,672 since Jan.1, 2000, to send House and Senate members on 4,851 trips.

The academic groups, think tanks and corporate sponsors say the trips allow lawmakers to learn valuable information without spending taxpayer money. But critics say sponsors are buying special access to lawmakers, often in congenial surroundings.

While some members took privately funded trips to make speeches in places like Pittsburgh and Peoria, Ill., others went on fact-finding jaunts to Aspen, Colo., or spent $3,000 on meals at a five-day conference in Barcelona, Spain.

The most popular destination was Florida, with 558 trips, followed by California with 386 and New York with 354. West Virginia, home to the luxurious Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, was the fourth most popular destination, with 223 trips.

Many of the 159 sponsored trips to Nevada - the fifth most common destination - mixed tours of the proposed nuclear waste disposal site at Yucca Mountain with the lure of adult playgrounds in Las Vegas.

While domestic destinations dominated the list of travel hot spots, Israel, Mexico, Italy, the United Kingdom and Cuba also made the top 20 most-visited list.

In all, senators took 1,071 trips, House members 3,781.

The House and Senate allow the trips if they are part of official duties and if lawmakers disclose where they went, the amount spent, and the sponsor. Senate rules limit domestic trips to three days and international trips to seven days, excluding travel time.

Disclosure forms often are filed late or are incomplete, and the only place to find them is in House and Senate office buildings.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., traveled the most at others' expense, taking 56 trips costing more than $158,000. On average, Breaux accepted a free trip a month, every month, over the period analyzed.

Pharmaceutical industry trade group PhRMA and drug companies Pfizer and Wyeth flew Breaux to Florida, and Pfizer often flew him to New York for three-day weekends.

From Nov. 16-18, 2000, Breaux took a trip to Long Boat Key, Fla., at the expense of the Health and Life Organization, while his wife was on a separate nine-day fact-finding trip to Thailand paid for by The Support Foundation. Senate rules allow spouses to accept unaccompanied privately sponsored trips.

"These conferences play an important role in interacting with groups affected by the workings of Congress," said Breaux, who is retiring this year after 32 years on Capitol Hill. "In addition, these trips are approved by the Senate Ethics Committee as appropriate and proper, and at no cost to the American taxpayers."

A spokeswoman said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., makes travel decisions based on whether trips pertain to issues of interest to him and his Senate committees. Lieberman, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000, is one of the most frugal lawmakers, listing three dozen trips totaling less than $500.

Bill Nell of the Aspen Institute, a left-leaning international relations think tank that sponsored 488 trips, said sending lawmakers on trips helps them better understand issues.

"If we discuss China, Latin America, or Russia, for example," he said, "it is much more meaningful to do it in the country we're studying with people from that country."

The Aspen Institute topped the list of money spent by sponsors at more than $2.5 million. Second place went to the Ripon Educational Fund, a program of the conservative Ripon Society. It doled out more than $600,000 to pay for 59 trips. Spending about $575,000 on 70 trips, the American Israel Education Foundation came in third.

Opinions on privately sponsored trips range from enthusiasm to skepticism to outright disapproval. While some lawmakers and sponsors say the trips promote understanding, some government watchdog groups say they give sponsors disproportionate influence on Capitol Hill.

Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project said: "Typically these trips help educate members of Congress only about one side of an issue. As such, sometimes they're worse than not traveling at all."

"It's for the most part only wealthy institutions that can do this," said Danielle Brian, director of the non-partisan Project on Government Oversight, referring to groups that sponsor trips. "So in itself there is definitely a skewed leaning towards powerful special interests versus the average citizen."

"At some level Congress doesn't have all the resources to go on all the trips it could. So I don't say they're blanket wrong. But if the company sponsoring the trip has a financial interest, that's where I draw the line," Brian said.

Others do not draw that same line.

In June 2003, Angelina S. Howard, executive vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, wrote an opinion column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that included praise for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., for supporting new nuclear power plants - a key proposal in the pending energy bill.

Two months later, the Nuclear Energy Institute, an association of nuclear energy companies, sent Chambliss on an $18,911 fact-finding mission to Italy - the fourth most expensive Senate trip since Jan. 1, 2000.

Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said Chambliss's trip to Italy included visits with Italian energy ministry officials and a tour of the Ansaldo-Camozzi Nuclear and Special Components facility, where steam generators for nuclear reactors are made.

Kerekes said the purpose of that trip was "to help advance their understanding of what's involved [in Italy] and understand that…there's no domestic industry to protect here in the United States with tariffs on these components [steam generators]."

Chambliss's office did not return repeated phone calls.

The most expensive trip was taken by Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., whose fact-finding journey to England in July 2000 cost Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. more than $31,000.

The tobacco company paid nearly $24,000 to transport Bliley and his wife to England, where they spent more than $4,000 on lodging and almost $3,000 on entertainment and other costs. House ethics rules prohibit private parties from providing more than $50 for entertainment

Bliley, who declined to comment, retired from Congress four months after the trip to work for Collier Shannon Scott, a lobbying firm that has represented the Tobacco Products Manufacturing Coalition.

The rest of the House's top-five most-expensive list:

  • Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., who traveled with his wife to Kazakhstan in 2002 for meetings with Jewish communities there, paid for by the Jewish Federation of Kazakhstan ($29,951)
  • Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who took a fact-finding trip to Great Britain in 2000 with his wife, sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy and Research ($28,106)
  • DeLay's fact-finding trip to South Korea with his wife in 2001, paid for by the Korea-United States Exchange Council ($28,000)
  • Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., took a fact-finding trip to South Korea in 2001 with her husband, and the Korea-United States Exchange Council picked up the $27,960 tab.

Ros-Lehtinen's South Korea trip was part of a series of consecutive trips from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2, 2001, each paid for by a different sponsor, that took her and her husband to Israel, South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia. Those four trips combined cost nearly $45,000.

Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the House International Relations Committee, has not taken a privately sponsored trip since 2001.

"When I travel in an official capacity, I make an effort to balance privately sponsored trips with congressionally funded travel to ensure diverse experiences," she said. "I have traveled to the Middle East, including Israel, since 2001."

Wexler, who also sits on the House International Relations Committee, said he traveled to Kazakhstan to meet with Jewish communities there and discuss leadership and anti-Semitism.

He also said that trip helped his aim "to enhance America's profile in non-Arab Islamic states." Kazakhstan is 47 percent Sunni Muslim.

DeLay's office did not return phone calls seeking comment. The five most expensive trips taken by senators:

  • Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a 2002 trip to Paris paid for by L'Oréal to attend the opening of "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," an exhibit at the Louvre ($22,156)
  • Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, whose trip to Greece in 2002 to receive an award cost $20,084, paid for by the American College of Greece
  • Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who traveled last year to England with his wife to give a speech, paid for by the Ripon Educational Fund ($19,312)
  • Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., whose fact-finding trip in 2003 to Italy sponsored by the Nuclear Energy Institute cost $18,912.
  • John Kyl, R-Ariz., traveled in 2002 to a conference in Germany with his wife, paid for by the Hans Seidel Foundation ($17,800)

A spokesman for Kennedy said he was unable to comment. The offices of Snowe, Roberts, Chambliss and Kyl did not return phone calls.

Over the years, efforts have been made to tighten congressional rules related to privately sponsored trips and make the information more easily available to the public. But all have become stuck in the gears of the political machine.

In 1998, former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., introduced a resolution that would have required any House member taking a trip to submit a report on how the travel was related to official House business, including findings and recommendations as well as a detailed itinerary of all meetings, interviews, inspection tours and other official functions.

Hamilton also wanted to require the disclosure forms and reports be posted on the Internet, but his resolution never got to the floor of the Republican-controlled House.

Currently, members need only name the sponsor, destination and purpose of the trip, and list transportation, lodging, meal and other costs. Far from being searchable on the Internet, these reports can only be seen in person in the House Cannon office building.

Similarly, Senate travel forms are only found in the Senate Hart building.

Steven Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group that examined congressional travel in 1998, said people are no more aware of privately sponsored trips today than they were six years ago.

"I think the public is still largely unaware of the fact that special interests can pay for members [of Congress] to travel for supposed educational purposes," Weiss said, adding that making records available online could bring this issue to the public's attention.

While Weiss noted that not all trips are paid for by groups with legislative agendas, Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project said it is important for citizens to examine lawmakers' privately sponsored trips "to find out what there is to be learned about members' ethics and their propensity for accepting graft and reasonable facsimiles of graft."

Return to Power Trips: Congress hits the road



 © 2001 Medill News Service, Northwestern University