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House Ethics Amends Private Travel Rules

The House Ethics Committee announced on Thursday that it has adopted new regulations for accepting privately financed congressional travel, including heightened disclosure requirements and earlier approval deadlines.

The changes were the result of a working group convened by the committee in the 111th and 112th Congresses and “provide a greater level of clarity into the requirements and conditions for receiving the committee’s approval to accept privately sponsored travel,” according to a joint statement from Ethics Chairman Jo Bonner, R-Ala., and ranking member Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif.

As Roll Call has reported extensively in the past, numerous groups linked so closely to lobbying interests they are all but indistinguishable are increasingly funding congressional travel in order to promote their agendas. The activity comes less than five years after Congress placed heightened restrictions on lobbyist-funded travel in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

“The committee will continue to examine the growth of groups related to organizations that retain lobbyists, and will continue to consider whether there is a need and fair manner to regulate further,” Bonner and Sanchez said in the statement.

The deadline for submitting pre-travel authorization forms to the committee will now be 30 days prior to departure instead of two weeks. New certification forms will require additional information about trip sponsors for increased transparency. Sponsors will be responsible for filling out the post-travel disclosure forms that will be filed by traveling members and staffers. There are also more explicit definitions of travel-related terms in the new guidance issued by the committee.

The committee said it gave “significant consideration” to whether charitable nonprofits registered as 501(c)(3) organizations under the tax code should be distinguished from other trip sponsors, but concluded there was no easy way to fairly separate the two.

When the House last rewrote its travel rules to prohibit entities that retain lobbyists from sponsoring most trips longer than a day, lawmakers carved out an exemption for universities. In the Senate, any 501(c)(3) group can fund travel, though they are permitted under the tax code to engage in limited lobbying.

“The committee took note that members of the ethics community who addressed the issue within the working group could not articulate a specific and fair manner in which the committee could draw such distinctions,” the statement said.

Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., and Peter Welch, D-Vt., were on the working group in the 111th Congress; Dent and Rep. Donna Edwards, D-Md., were in the 112th Congress.

The new rules take effect for trips that begin on or after April 1, 2013. Until then, the committee said it will be conducting trainings and available for additional guidance.

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