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House Ethics Panel to Hold Rare Public Hearing

The House ethics committee is scheduled to hold a rare public hearing this afternoon as it wrestles with possible rules changes on privately funded travel for Members and staff.

It is the first recorded public hearing for the ethics committee, sources close to the panel said.

As a result of the House debate over lobbying reform in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct on May 10 implemented a system for preapproving all Member and staffer trips. The procedure is voluntary since the ethics panel cannot formally issue new travel rules until the House and Senate complete work on lobbying and ethics reform legislation. That legislation is pending because conferees for the House have not been appointed at press time.

But by scheduling a public hearing, Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee, respectively, seem intent on issuing the travel recommendations as soon as feasible, House insiders said.

Witnesses at today’s ethics committee hearing include: former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), currently president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers; Bradley Gordon, legislative director for the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee; Chellie Pingree, president and CEO of Common Cause; the Rev. W. Douglas Tanner, president of the Faith and Politics Institute; and Mike Franc, vice president of the Heritage Foundation.

None of the witnesses appears to support a blanket ban on private travel, as some reformers have called for, and at least some will complain that the intense public scrutiny given to such trips in the wake of the Abramoff scandal actually has had a negative impact as lawmakers and staffers pull back from excursions that have educational benefits.

“We had to cancel all our trips for the rest of the year because [Members and staff don’t want] to run afoul of the law,” said NAM’s Hank Cox. Cox said NAM companies funded eight to 10 trips per year before the Abramoff scandal rocked Capitol Hill and forced a re-examination of lawmakers’ interactions with lobbyists.

“We just think it’s a very useful tool to educate Members about the challenges facing manufacturers,” Cox added.

Tanner of the Faith and Politics Institute said his group funds trips to Alabama every other year as part of its campaign to educate lawmakers about the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. Tanner said a trip to Mississippi planned for this year collapsed because potential participants were concerned, at least in part, about the propriety of the trip.

Tanner believes registered lobbyists should be allowed to accompany Members and aides on privately funded travel, as long as such contacts are disclosed and the ethics committee pre-approves the trip. “I do not believe that lobbyists should be excluded,” said Tanner, who emphasized that the ethics committee must vet all trips before they take place.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, said her organization “sees the real value” of Congressional travel but wants the ethics committee to step up its enforcement of the existing rules surrounding such trips to root out potential abuses of the system.

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