If you are a member of Congress or work for a member, and are sufficiently important enough that some special pleader wants to impress you, you can travel a lot on someone else’s dime.
Just how much is apparent in a study done by the Center for Public Integrity. (The study is available at www.publicintegrity.org/powertrips/.)The center found that from January 2000, in the last full year of the Clinton administration, through 2005, lawmakers and their aides took 23,000 trips worth $50 million paid for by corporations, interest groups and foreign governments.
It should be said that it is a tribute to Congress’ willingness to disclose, however reluctantly, that the center was able to amass this data from required forms, even if those forms were subject to errors and omissions.
The trips were not entirely work-free. Said the Center: “Congressional leaders gave speeches in Scotland, attended meetings in Australia and toured nuclear facilities in Spain. They pondered welfare reform in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the future of Social Security at a Colorado ski resort.” Paris, Hawaii and Italy were the most popular destinations.
There is an argument that members and their staffs need to travel for information and context, but the trips seem less weighted toward the education of lawmakers than their influence.
The 11 House members (only two of them Democrats, presumably less in need of education) who took more than $350,000 worth of travel in that time run heavily to Republican leaders and committee chairs.
What is striking about the study is that the hosting organizations spent most of that travel money _ $30 million _ on congressional staffers, the anonymous but enormously influential aides who make the committees and offices run.
This paid travel is unseemly and largely unnecessary, but Congress is unlikely to do anything about it. The two houses are already slow-walking, perhaps to oblivion, their modest efforts at lobbying and ethics reform.
Having clearer, faster disclosure would be helpful to the stay-at-home voters so, like anxious parents of teenagers, they’ll know where their congressman is, who he’s with and how long he’s going to be gone.
(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com.)