By Aaron Blake - 01/09/07 12:00 AM EST
Some members of Congress preparing for heated contests in 2008 have sharply curtailed their private travel since lobbying scandals brought the issue to the forefront over the last couple of years.
Among other rule changes, the Democratic-led House last week passed measures to rein in private travel, shortly after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the new members were sworn in.
The move came the day after a Center for Public Integrity study showed a steep decline in private travel among all members and staff in the year before June 30, 2006.
According to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) took zero trips in 2006 after taking 48 the previous three years, Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) took one trip after taking 46 from 2003 through 2005, and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) took no trips after taking 45 over the previous six years.
Biden is running for president, Coleman is one of the premier Senate targets in 2008, and Bayh mulled a presidential bid before declining to run last month. The three had been among Congress’s top travelers before last year.
Some candidates have publicly banned or put sharp limitations on their office’s private travel, including Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who might run for president, and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is up for reelection in 2008.
The Global Health Council, which generally sponsors two international trips per year to places like Africa and Latin America, hasn’t been able to organize one in more than a year. A planned trip to South Africa to examine HIV/AIDS issues was cancelled this past summer due to lack of interest.
“Clearly, before the election, no one was interested in taking such a trip,” said Maurice Middleberg, the council’s vice president for public policy. He said the council couldn’t get “anybody who might remotely be relevant” — specifically, staffers or lawmakers on authorizing or appropriations committees.
Meredith McGehee, who as policy director of the Campaign Legal Center worked with members of Congress on the new ethics rules, said office after office told her they weren’t traveling because it was too politically risky.
“We never would have won the vote like we did [last week] if the politicians up there didn’t believe it was an issue with legs,” McGehee said.
The House’s rules package will require members to get pre-authorization for privately paid trips and will prohibit travel that is funded by organizations that employ lobbyists, including the Global Health Council. Members will also no longer be able to travel on corporate jets.
In both the House and Senate, many less-frequent travelers eyeing tough races in 2008 also cut their private travel in 2006.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who over the weekend decided against a challenge to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), traveled five times, none of which came after March. From 2003 through 2005, he had taken 38 trips. Davis is still eyeing a statewide bid in 2010.
Similarly, Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine), who has expressed interest in challenging Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), didn’t travel after two trips in January. He had taken between three and five trips a year since 2002.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a potential frontrunner for her party’s presidential nomination, tied a career low with three trips last year after taking 19 total trips the previous two years. She was also running for reelection to the Senate.
Retired Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who like Bayh turned down a presidential run, didn’t travel after taking 22 trips the previous three years.
Durbin, who had traveled about as much as Allen, reportedly banned all private travel in his office with the exception of trips paid for by tax-exempt charities.
Few offices said the decrease was a result of a change in philosophy on private travel.
Coleman spokesman LeRoy Coleman (no relation) said the shift isn’t about a change in the senator’s approach to private travel and emphasized that he has been “at the forefront of the ethics-reform movement.”
Biden Chief of Staff Alan Hoffman said Biden’s work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has occupied his time and that he hasn’t needed anyone to pay for his travel, but Hoffman said it doesn’t represent a change in philosophy.
Davis spokesman Corey Ealons said the congressman was merely focused on helping his party win the election and emphasized how selective the office is when accepting private trips.
Bayh’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Not all members changed their travel habits. Presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and vulnerable Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) all continued to travel at about the same rate. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a possible Smith challenger, also traveled a similar amount.
Among infrequent travelers up in 2008 in the Senate: Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) hasn’t taken a trip since taking seven his freshman year in 2003; Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) haven’t traveled since 2004; Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) didn’t travel; Collins took one trip; Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) took two trips; and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) went on three trips.
Private travel needs to be disclosed within 30 days under the old rules, meaning members could still disclose trips from late December 2006.
The Center for Public Integrity study showed a nearly 50 percent decline in total trips and total spent on private travel from the previous year. Trips dropped from 4,700 to 2,700, and the total spent dropped from $10.3 million to $5.4 million. The drop-off was bigger in the first half of 2006 than in the second half of 2005.
“This sort of travel had been largely done out of public view,” said Jim Morris, project manager at the center. “I think just the attention generated primarily by the scandals of last year really has caused this thing to drop off. Whether it stays as low as it has been, we’ll see.”