A Few Trips Mark End of an Era

Posted April 6, 2007 at 5:48pm

Lawmakers and staff have clipped their wings in the new Congress. But even as a new ethics environment prompted a sharp drop-off in privately funded trips during the first two months of the year, some Hill types took advantage of a delay in the impending travel ban to skip town on other people’s dime, according to a report from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Through March 9 of this year, Members of Congress and their staffers took 129 trips, at a cost of about $244,000. That marked a decline of more than 80 percent — in both frequency and cost — compared to the same period last year, when they took 728 trips costing $1.5 million, the report found.

“Even talk of banning travel was enough to curtail these trips,” said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center.

Democrats took control of Congress this year pledging to move quickly on a slate of ethics reforms that included an end to lobbyist-funded junkets. House lawmakers adopted restrictions on privately funded travel as part of the rules package for the 110th Congress, but the new standards did not take effect until last month.

The Senate is further behind. The chamber approved a similar prohibition in a lobbying reform package it adopted in January. But that provision, and others in the measure, are not in force because the House has not yet moved on a companion bill.

The lag provided a window of opportunity for Members and staff looking to squeeze in some final jaunts. The Consumer Electronics Association shelled out $11,300 to take seven staffers and one lawmaker to Las Vegas for the industry’s electronics show, an increasingly popular destination in recent years.

Ed McDonald, an aide to Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), said the trip provided an opportunity to see “new technology up close, and get a better understanding of the issues we’re dealing with back in D.C.” His $1,274 tab for the trip covered airfare and hotel lodging, he said, while he paid for his meals himself.

The Congressional turnout marked a steep decline from last year, when the electronics group spent $124,350 to bring 67 lawmakers and staffers out for the trip. As early as December 2006, aides and lobbyists reported that former attendees were avoiding the event in droves in anticipation of the new rules and stepped-up scrutiny.

Still, a handful of lawmakers — including Republican Reps. Jon Porter (Nev.), Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Tom Davis (Va.) — apparently paid their own way to the Las Vegas convention this year. An Issa spokesman said his boss already was in town for a board meeting of Directed Electronics, a company he used to head, and took the opportunity to join a panel discussion at the show titled “Congress Talks Tech.” The CEA was unavailable for comment.

The electronics show was not the only ticket out of the Washington, D.C., winter to sunnier climes. The Alliance for Health Reform spent $24,055 to fly eight lawmakers to Miami in mid-January for a conference on health policy. A week later, the Inter-American Economic Council spent $6,561 to fly Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) and two aides to St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, for a panel discussion of the economic impact of HIV/AIDS on the Caribbean.

Kerry McKenney, one of the staffers who made the trip, said Payne, a co-chairman of the Congressional Caribbean Caucus, packed a meeting with the governor and lieutenant governor of the territory and an all-day conference into the weekend.

Since neither the Alliance for Health Reform nor the Inter-American Economic Council employs lobbyists, it appears both trips could qualify under the new restrictions.

To clear the rules, Congressional travelers have to certify to the ethics committee that lobbyists had nothing to do with planning or funding the trip. Sponsors have to provide their own certification to the invitees that the trip is within the rules.

Significantly, for events tailored to lawmakers and staff — as opposed to a wider group — the location of the event has to be relevant to its purpose, according to guidance the ethics committee issued recently. The point of the rule is to make it harder for groups to whisk lawmakers and staff off to resort locales.

The center’s report found that while staffers traditionally take more trips than their bosses, the trend began to shift this year. Lawmakers accounted for only 32 percent of the travel in the opening months of last year. So far this year, they account for 58 percent of the trips.

The member with the most stamps on his suitcase is House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.). In January, he traveled through Middle America courtesy of the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and Pheasants Forever.

In February, he flew to Palm Springs, Calif., thanks to the American Association of Crop Insurers, to address the group’s national convention. The Renewable Fuels Association sponsored the next leg of his trip, to Tucson, Ariz., to speak at the National Ethanol Conference. And after that night in the desert, the Texas Farm Bureau Association paid for him to fly to Austin, Texas, to keynote the 2007 Texas Ag Forum. Total price tag for the trips: $7,338.

A Peterson spokesman did not return a call for comment.

The CRP’s Ritsch cautioned that the group’s report could be incomplete because the old rules only require travelers to file disclosure forms within 30 days of the trip, and some are lax about meeting the deadline. The new House rules require detailed disclosure within 15 days.

Some lobbyists affiliated with longstanding out-of-town events said that while they doubt Congressional participation will ever match its recent heyday — spending on trips peaked at $3.5 million in 2005, according to CQ PoliticalMoneyLine — motivated lawmakers and aides will find ways to participate.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) will be the lone lawmaker at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas later this month. Spokesman Adam Sharp said as chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on disaster recovery, Landrieu wants to speak to the gathering about broadcasters’ role in the wake of natural disasters.

“She’s paying for the trip out of the office’s travel budget,” he said.