Senate Looks to Fix Travel Rule

Double-Booking Flights at Issue

Posted September 25, 2007 at 6:37pm

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is discussing ways to clarify a provision in the new ethics law that has effectively blocked Senators from booking seats on multiple flights home at one time, and at least one key GOP Senator says he is considering a legislative remedy for the massive travel headache.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), ranking member on the Rules panel, said Tuesday his committee is hoping to make clear to the airlines that it is not a “gift” to allow Senators to secure seats on more than one flight at a time. The practice — regularly used by Senators because of their uncertain schedules — has been called into question after the Air Transport Association recently ruled that it falls under the gift ban enacted under the newly enacted ethics and lobby reform law.

Bennett said that, barring an interpretation or clarification by the Rules Committee, “I am willing to introduce or co-sponsor a bill to say that double booking is not a gift. That’s an interpretation made by the airlines.”

Asked whether he believed his colleagues would support revisiting the issue through legislation, Bennett added: “I think that it would pass pretty easily.”

Senate Rules Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also has complained about the new practice, telling The Washington Post that she might ask the Ethics Committee to issue a ruling on the subject.

Senators in both parties have been complaining loudly about the difficulties many now face trying to fly home to their states under the new airline rules. Formerly, Senators could secure seats on several flights and ultimately board the one that fits them best.

Now, however, Senators must make their best guess on when the Senate will wrap up for the week and book one flight — hoping it matches the schedule. Miss that flight, they argue, and they risk losing a travel day or adding taxpayer expense to booking another ticket.

“This is something Members want to take a look at to see if there needs to be any changes made,” one Democratic Senate aide said.

Although the airline issue seems to be making the most noise, it is not the only piece of the new ethics law that’s creating strife.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in recent days has incurred the wrath of Senate ethics reformers because of what they say are major changes to key parts of the bill’s earmark rules. Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and other reformers have complained about Reid’s decision to interpret the rules to allow earmarks to be added during conference talks with the House, so long as the bill is an authorizing bill and not an appropriations measure.

Likewise, DeMint and Coburn also have cried foul over a last-minute change made to the bill that limits the information lawmakers are required to publicly disclose; while the bill originally had required Members to disclose the purpose and beneficiary of an earmark, Reid eliminated that requirement during closed talks with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

According to DeMint, he and other conservatives are now drafting their own ethics “corrections” package to address these and other problems they see with the bill. “We’re working on some clarifications” they hope to make to the rules, DeMint said, adding that he is unsure whether they will look to move them separately or “as an amendment to Bennett” should he draft legislation on the travel issue.

It remains unclear whether Senators will look to deal with the travel woes through legislation, but certainly the idea has sparked internal discussions in both Democratic and Republican leadership circles, sources in both parties noted Tuesday. GOP leaders in particular have been studying whether it may be necessary to try to craft a bipartisan bill to ensure Senators can continue to hold seats on multiple flights.

“People have certainly raised concerns about the unintended consequences,” said a GOP Senate leadership aide. “We’re not trying to get some special sweetheart deal, we’re just trying to visit some constituents.”

Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the Democratic Conference secretary, said that while she personally hasn’t experienced hurdles in booking her trips home, she knows it has been problematic for some. Murray added, however, that she’s not “panicking yet,” since Senators are looking to clarify the new provisions.

“My understanding is Rules is looking at it,” Murray said. “It is very challenging when there’s just a few flights home.”

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who like Bennett opposed the overall ethics legislation, said he couldn’t speak directly to what Republican leaders are considering but that the broader reform package “is totally unachievable and the problems are limitless.”

John Stanton contributed to this report.