Scandals have congressional trips under additional scrutiny

Along with next year’s models and the sleeker designs promised in a more distant future, attendees of the North American International Auto Show last week had the chance to peruse a member of Congress or two.

Seven lawmakers, in fact, flew (commercial) to Detroit, courtesy of the auto industry, to tour the floor and visit with auto executives.

One hot topic of discussion was how automakers are working to develop new cars and trucks less reliant on gasoline — a goal that lawmakers spend a considerable amount of time discussing on Capitol Hill.

The members who stayed — Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) came in only for a day — did so in $300-a-night rooms at the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, a glass high-rise that overlooks the Detroit River and Canada. They ate at nice restaurants — also courtesy of the industry.

But the trip’s sponsor, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, rejects the notion that the trip is an example of congressional extravagance of the kind that has members furiously introducing a series of lobbying reforms.

This was Detroit in January, after all.

“We can look you right in the eye and tell you this was a working trip,” said Fred Webber, the president of the Alliance, which represents major domestic and foreign automakers.

The lawmakers who went to Detroit were John Dingell (D-Mich.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Tom Allen (D-Maine), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Charles Bass (R-N.H.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.), according to the Alliance.

Given the scandal surrounding former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who apparently paid to take his friends on Capitol Hill on lavish trips to Scotland and other far-flung places, lawmakers stand to have their wings considerably clipped this year, and trade groups could lose an important arrow in their quivers: the chance to spend unadulterated hours explaining how the industries they represent work to the people who regulate them.

Current rules allow groups, but not lobbyists themselves, to pay for congressional travel. House Republican leaders said yesterday that they would seek to ban business-backed travel for members and their staffs altogether.

If that happens, Webber and others fear, members will be less likely to attend trade-association conventions or other events, which have to be educational, according to congressional rules, if they have to use taxpayer money to pay.

“It’s about a dialogue. We are concerned about losing that,” said Jim Clarke, senior vice president for public policy at the American Society of Association Executives.

According to the website politicalmoneyline.com, members of Congress went on 1,111 privately funded trips last year, at a cost of more than $3.4 million. That was down from the previous two years, as perquisites attendant with the job came under increasing scrutiny with the Abramoff scandal.

Critics contend that the trips represent another advantage for the wealthy. Limits on how much groups can pay for meals in Washington, for example, don’t apply on these trips. It isn’t unusual for members to rack up dining bills that exceed $1,000. Lodging can be twice as expensive.

“If [the trips] are really important, I don’t see why the government can’t pay for it themselves,” said Beth Daley, spokeswoman for the group Project on Government Oversight.

She said that lobbyists often fly aboard corporate jets along with the members, who are obviously a captive audience in such instances. Some reform proposals would allow congressional travel but prohibit lobbyists from attending.

Daley wants an outright ban. One added benefit, she said, is that a ban would also keep businesses and other groups that set up nonprofit groups, which don’t have to disclose their sponsors, from anonymously seeking to influence members or staff.

One lobbyist and former Hill staffer, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged that “some of these trips are hard to explain and defend in Peoria.”

Destinations vary, obviously, but they often share certain similarities. Members are likely to stay in lush resorts with golf courses and nice restaurants close by, although the members themselves must pay greens fees.

But the lobbyist added that the trips can offer invaluable experience in particular for staffers, who often are fresh from school with little practical experience in the industries that they play a role in overseeing.

“Most staffers have never seen a chemical plant, or a refinery,” the lobbyist said.

Webber, of the Alliance, said one goal of flying members to Detroit was to show them advanced-technology vehicles, such as hybrids and “clean diesel” cars and trucks, that the industry is developing to reduce reliance on gasoline and therefore on foreign, and polluting, oil.

Members spent Monday on the floor of the auto show going “manufacturer to manufacturer,” spending around 40 minutes with each, Webber said. On Tuesday, members got a chance to drive next-generation cars powered by hydrogen or other advanced technologies.

Webber acknowledged that the industry hopes one outcome of the trip is that lawmakers will be less likely to impose what it considers onerous regulations, such as higher standards for fuel efficiency, known as corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE. Environmental groups back higher CAFE standards as a way to clean the air, but the industry says the market should determine what cars and trucks Americans want to purchase.

Even before Congress debates reform proposals in earnest, the scandal surrounding Abramoff has already affected congressional travel.

John Kane, the lead lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the scandal has put a “chill” on business-backed travel.

NEI has spent more than $320,000 flying members, and in some cases their spouses, to places such as Las Vegas, Paris and Barcelona, Spain, since 2000, according to PoliticalMoneyLine’s database. That’s good enough for seventh on the website’s list of top travel spenders. Individual trips — that is, with a member and his or her spouse — cost nearly $20,000, according to travel records.

But NEI chooses its destinations based on the educational opportunities offered there, Kane said. The group submits itineraries to the appropriate ethics committee before each trip to ensure it complies with the “letter and spirit of the law,” Kane said.

France, for example, is a popular destination because it relies heavily on nuclear power, which in the United States accounts for around 20 percent of the electricity used.

Allen said the Detroit trip not only gave the auto executives the chance to tell him their concerns but also gave him the opportunity to seek support for his proposals to cut gasoline use by requiring that replacement tires meet the same standards as new ones and to expand eligibility for Medicare.

Nevertheless, Allen is among a group of Democrats who have called for a ban on corporate backed travel.

“The problem is it’s very hard to distinguish a trip to Detroit in January with a trip to St. Andrews for golf, or to set up some conference,” Allen said.