Playing the junket game in Congress

Lawmakers and their staff find facts, sometimes in the most opportune place.

Like Hawaii, in the dead of winter.

In January 2005, with Washington’s average high temperature hovering around 42 degrees, the American Association of Airport Executives convened in Kona, Hawaii. Average high temperature at the resort: about 80 degrees. For their civil aviation conference, the airport executives flew out a staffer for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Cost to the taxpayer: nothing. The airport executives picked up the $3,459 tab. It was a legal trip that apparently benefited everyone involved. It was also the kind of trip that now confronts lawmakers with some tough choices.

“I know fact-finding trips are important,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert declared last month. “This body considers legislation that affects people across this country that cannot always travel to Washington to petition their government. (But) private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it.”

Alarmed by the guilty plea of ex-GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and the ongoing criminal investigation that touches on some congressional junkets, Hastert hurriedly unveiled a package that included an outright ban on all privately funded trips.

Those frequent flier miles do add up. The chairmen of 10 leading House committees approved privately funded trips totaling more than half a million dollars last year, a Sacramento Bee review of voluminous congressional travel records shows. And though it’s the image of a globetrotting congressman that may spring to mind, staffers account for the vast majority of trips.

“With the right group and the right agenda, they’re very informative and educational,” said chief of staff of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., Scott Nishioki, who visited Japan last year with the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute. “In this town, there’s nothing wrong with having your eyes opened.”

Congressional staff _ and lawmakers themselves _ can travel in several ways. Individual congressional offices and committees can pay for trips. This happened, for instance, when the House Resources Committee spent $4,935.82 to reimburse Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., for use of an RV to visit national parks in 2003 with his family.

The other way is for private groups to pay.

As chairman of the House Resources Committee, Pombo approved nearly $55,000 worth of private trips in 2005. None of the trips were for himself, and the committee’s total was less than a number of other committees. The wide-ranging House Energy and Committee _ which oversees everything from telecommunications to health care and air quality _ approved nearly $175,000 worth of private trips.

Some trips can sound luxurious: a November visit to Hawaii, undertaken by a staffer for Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., speaking at a water conference; a March visit to the New York Auto Show, complete with dinner at the Friar’s Club, for an Energy and Commerce staffer; a $304-a-night room at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, for a Judiciary Committee staffer attending the consumer electronics show. The trips can also be relatively spare, like a quick two-day jaunt to Virginia farms last May for an Agriculture Committee staffer.

Many of the hosts can be easily guessed. For Pombo’s Resources Committee staffers last year, these included the Shell Oil Co., the Edison Electric Institute and the Southern California Public Power Authority. But the hosts can also span a wider range.

In January 2005, for instance, the Wilderness Society spent $1,998 to bring two Resources Committee staffers out to tour federal lands near Palm Springs. At the same time, the Consumer Electronics Association spent $1,731 to bring out another Resources staffer for the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. The trip was designed to “preview technologies that may be deployed to address natural resource issues,” according to the travel filing.

“I believe it’s critical for not just the members, but also for the staff to get outside of D.C.,” Pombo said. “Most of the issues that come before the committee are not black and white.”

Many of Pombo’s colleagues agree.

“I especially encourage them to travel when the taxpayer doesn’t have to pay for it,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “It’s important that we get out of Washington, and for the staff to get out of Washington. There’s nothing better than learning by doing.”

The sentiment appears widespread enough that lawmakers including new House Majority Leader John Boehner have been distancing themselves from Hastert’s quickly concocted proposal for an outright ban. Instead, Pombo suggested one alternative might be to ensure that the House Committee on Standards of Official Condit _ the ethics committee _ first approves of every privately funded trip.

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