Travel Ban Could Have Unintended Consequences

House Speaker-Elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is understandably intent on moving swiftly to strengthen rules governing lobbying and ethics in the House when the 110th Congress gets underway in January. Given the scandals that emerged this year, culminating with the investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the members of Congress he illegally benefited, it's necessary that Pelosi send an early message that this Congress will move to ensure honest leadership and open government from the outset.

New rules restricting or requiring more disclosure of gifts, earmarks and the like seem like common sense solutions to regain the public trust and strengthen accountability in the legislative process. One of the proposals under consideration, however, would ban all privately-paid travel for members of Congress and their staff. The travel ban may look good at first mention, particularly in light of the "Abramoff-type" golf trips to Scotland that figured prominently in the press this year.

But the reality is that this type of ban would also prevent a member of Congress or staff from delivering a speech at any association's annual meeting or conference outside the nation's capital.

These types of widely-attended meetings - predominantly educational in nature - are extremely valuable to association members and to the members of Congress invited to attend. Members of Congress can hardly be expected to be experts in every field or profession. The perspective gained from a meeting attended by professionals in a particular field or profession could be characterized as crucial to the construction of sound legislation. Association members, meanwhile, get a sense of how things operate on Capitol Hill and the current outlook for legislation.

I have heard the argument that these meetings can just take place in Washington, but that is far from realistic. Many factors contribute to the location of an association meeting, including cost, attendee profile, meeting and exhibit space requirements, and availability of a convention center, hotel room blocks, and so forth. Many associations can't bring their meetings to Washington for one or more of these reasons.

My organization, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), has released a statement this week encouraging Congress to adopt rules that embody the definition of honest, ethical government without cutting off legislators' access to the thoughts and perspectives of millions of people attending association meetings outside the nation's capital. We are asking our members to contact their elected officials and encourage them to support a transparent pre-approval process for travel, whereby trips to give a speech at a legitimate meeting or conference would have to be approved in advance and with full disclosure of expenses and program agenda to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct.

I think it's important to pass rules that pass the public smell test for accountable, honest government. I also think it's important to preserve practices that promulgate good legislation. Congressional travel leads to a better understanding of issues and how they impact various constituencies.

Hopefully, the 110th Congress won't limit its exposure to different voices and outside perspectives before it even gets started.

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