Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Travel by Congress often paid privately


Travel by Congress often paid privately

By Jim Drinkard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have taken $16 million in privately financed trips since 2000, and more than half were sponsored by non-profit groups that don't have to disclose who is providing the money, a study out today says.

The issue of who pays for lawmakers' travel is under increased scrutiny because of an ethics controversy involving House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who took trips that may have been paid for by prohibited sources. Privately paid travel is permitted under the rules, but expenses cannot be paid for by a lobbyist or by a representative of a foreign interest.

The new analysis of 5,410 trips in the past five years by about 600 members of the House and Senate was conducted by PoliticalMoneyLine, an online service that provides campaign-finance and lobbying data.

It found that $8.8 million of the travel expenses were paid for by tax-exempt and other groups whose funding sources aren't public. DeLay is under fire in part because one such group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, paid for a trip to Britain in 2000 that may have been at least partly paid for by a lobbyist, which is against House rules.

While ethics rules require lawmakers to try to find out and disclose who is paying for their trips, they often fail to do so, said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics, an ethics watchdog group. "It has become a 'don't ask, don't tell' system," Noble said.

He said it is curious that the rules don't allow lobbyists to pay for trips but permit their employers to do so. "The fiction is that the same conflict doesn't exist when the lobbyist's employer, a corporation or a trade association, pays for the travel and the lobbyist goes along," Noble said.

An additional $4.4 million in travel was paid for by trade associations and $2 million by corporations. Interest groups frequently take lawmakers to conferences, plant sites or other places to educate them on issues. Among other findings:

•The leading travel sponsor was the educational Aspen Institute, which spent nearly $2.9 million on seminars for lawmakers. Institute spokesman Jim Spiegelman said the money comes from foundations, and the trips educate lawmakers without pushing a point of view. Other top spenders: the Ripon Society, an organization of Republican moderates, and the American Israel Education Foundation, an arm of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC.

•Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, rolled up the largest tab over the five-year period. He took 19 trips valued at nearly $168,000, most to overseas destinations that included Asia, the Persian Gulf and Europe.

•Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., took the most trips: 63. All were domestic speeches and therefore less expensive. His total tab was $61,000.

•DeLay took 14 trips valued at $94,568. He ranked 28th for value of trips, and 114th in the number taken.

•Democrats took 3,025 trips; Republicans, 2,375; independents, 10.