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Sweet column: Congressional travelers

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Congress is deciding how to let private interests pay for trips without getting into ethical jams. It's not clear lawmakers have figured out how to do it. You can't solve the problem sometimes until it is defined, and that's what a new study just accomplished... click below for a look at Illinois travelers.

This is not going to be a manifesto against domestic and international travel for members of Congress and their staffers. Travel is broadening, enlightening and brings reality to policy and appropriation questions sometimes addressed only in the abstract. But there is a right way and a wrong way to get this done.

For the first time, there is a complete picture of private-funded travel activity of lawmakers and their staffers, thanks to a new massive study by the Washington bureau of the Medill News Service, run by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, the Center for Public Integrity and American Public Media. In addition to the national findings, tracking private-paid travel between Jan. 1, 2000, and June 30, 2005, the partners produced a breakdown of just the Illinois delegation for that period.

Recent ethics scandals demonstrate the need for Congress to police itself much more when it comes to taking trips paid for with private money. The ethics bills just passed by the House and Senate in the wake of the lobbying scandal triggered by convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff rejected banning all private-funded travel. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), have self-imposed bans against taking trips paid for by groups lobbying Congress on legislation either directly or indirectly. Durbin's rules, installed last January, also require that lobbyists do not participate in the trip.

The new study by Medill and its two partners shows that over a period of more than five years, Durbin and his staffers have taken some 50 private paid trips totaling more than $150,000. The tab for Durbin's wife, Loretta, was also picked up for some travel. Many of Durbin's trips were paid for by the Aspen Institute, which does not lobby Congress.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), as the leader, travels extensively, but all are taxpayer-funded official trips. Unlike other lawmakers, he can authorize official travel. His staff, however, accepts private-paid trips, 247 over the 51/2-year period, with a price tag of $438,214.

"It would be a shame if you couldn't travel,'' Hastert deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke told me. "Believe it or not, Washington is not the font of all knowledge." The private sources come to play because, as Stokke says, "in terms of government, unless you are traveling at a committee's direction, there is no domestic budget item for domestic travel by congressional staff.''

House and Senate rules require disclosure of trips, but the records are not available electronically so it is almost impossible to analyze on a widespread and ongoing basis private-paid travel and separate the junkets from the judicious.

I've been in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building looking at House disclosures; they are kept in ringed notebooks. The Senate keeps the information in an office above ground, but not online.

The database is important because "it documents the extent of potential abuses,'' said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group campaigning for a total ban on private-funded travel.

The big picture reveals that almost three-quarters of private-paid trips are taken by staffers. Many are to vacation destinations in Florida, France and Italy. Only a few were to conflict areas such as Sudan and Haiti.

Lobbyists are not supposed to pay directly for trips, but there are ways of working the system that gives special interests the ability to get to the head of the line to present their case. For example, the new database reveals that Chicago-based Boeing has sponsored congressional trips and kicks into a trade association that has bankrolled more than 300 trips with a price tag of about $1 million.

Trips listed could be reimbursement for travel relating to a speech or television appearance, or in connection with a group like Aspen that does not lobby or with special interests with business before Congress.

Here's the breakdown for other Illinois delegates and their staffers:

Rep. Henry Hyde (R), the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, or his staffers took 61 private-paid trips worth $149,469; Rep. Danny Davis (D) or staffers 67 trips worth $148,093; Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) or staffers 66 worth $135,265; Rep. Jerry Weller (R) or staffers 65 at $128,778; Rep. Ray LaHood (R) or staffers 62 at $123,515; Rep. John Shimkus (R) or staffers 66 at $113,435; Rep. Mark Kirk (R) or staffers 34 at $112,218; Rep. Bobby Rush (D) or staffers 24 at $90,678; Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) or staffers 33 at $83,574; Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) or staffers 27 at $77,869; Rep. Judy Biggert (R) or staffers 26 at $60,169; Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D) or staffers 23 at $40,148.

Freshmen sworn in in January 2005 are Rep. Melissa Bean (D) or staffers nine at $14,387; Rep. Dan Lipinski (D) or staffers six at $5,959; and Sen. Barack Obama (D) or staffers two at $3,277. Obama also imposed the same Durbin-style rule.

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on June 15, 2006 6:14 AM.

Hastert: Pockets quick $2 million profit in real estate deals. was the previous entry in this blog.

Rep. Louise Slaughter: GOP moves to stifle today's House debate on Iraq War. Is this resolution necessary? is the next entry in this blog.

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