Money for nothing and your trips for free

Congressional travel: Good work if you can get it.

Published June 6, 2006 12:24PM (EDT)

Americans weighing the impact that high gas prices will have on their summer vacations might note with interest -- and that would be the polite way of putting it -- a new report from the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News.

Between 2000 and the middle of 2005, the report says, members of Congress and their staffs took at least 23,000 trips worth nearly $50 million, and they didn't have to pay for any of them. The trips -- 200 to Paris, 150 or so to Hawaii, thousands upon thousands more to just about everywhere you can imagine, at least if everywhere has a beach or a golf course nearby -- came at the largess of private sponsors, many of them with business before Congress.

It's good work if you can get it. And some members -- most of them Republicans in the House of Representatives -- were really good at getting it. The offices of nine Republicans and two Democrats accepted more than $350,000 each in free travel. The big trippers: House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas; House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio; former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas; House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y.; Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio; former Rep. W.J. Tauzin, R-La.; Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif.; Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.; and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

While most of the trips didn't violate any laws, the report found numerous ethical violations -- and that's even after you make the rather dubious assumption that all of the trips were legitimately related to the members' official duties in Congress. Among the problems: Although ethics rules bar congressional trips paid for by firms registered to lobby the government, the report found that such firms sponsored a portion or all of at least 90 trips worth approximately $145,000.

What do our lawmakers say in defense of themselves? Some say the trips are educational and illuminating, crucial for expanding their understanding of the world. Others plead ignorance and mistake: The office of Republican Rep. Katherine Harris says it simply goofed in not listing the sponsor of a trip she took to Palm Beach, Fla., and Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel has reimbursed sponsors of a trip to Cuba who paid for his son to go with him in an apparent violation of one-family-member-per-free-trip ethics rules.

Then there are the Washington staffers who really, really plead ignorance. Former Bush administration procurement chief David Safavian, on trial for lying to federal officials and obstructing justice, testified Monday that he had no idea how much Jack Abramoff might have paid to fly him to Scotland for a golf expedition in 2002, when Safavian was the chief of staff at the General Services Administration. As TPMmuckraker reports it, a prosecutor asked Safavian if he had any "conception" of what a plane ticket to Europe might cost. Safavian said he did not know. "Could it be $1,000 or $10,000, or $100?" the prosecutor asked. Safavian said he didn't know that, either.

To be fair, we should note that Safavian never actually held such an airline ticket in his hand because Abramoff flew him to Scotland on a private plane. In his testimony last week, Safavian said people shouldn't get the wrong impression. The private plane, he said, wasn't as spacious as they might think.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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