Study finds $50M in privately funded travel by lawmakers

If voters find industry-sponsored junkets objectionable, a study out today could be bad news for globetrotting lawmakers. Private sponsors paid nearly $50 million over five and a half years to send members of Congress and their staffs on at least 23,000 trips, according to a review of travel records by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University journalism students.

The study is the first time that researchers have pinpointed the full cost of privately funded congressional travel. An earlier tally of about $15 million counted only travel by lawmakers themselves and neglected more numerous trips for staff.

The researchers kept tabs on which offices filed incomplete, incorrect or late reports disclosing details of their travels. They singled out two lawmakers, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), for failing to disclose until six weeks ago that the Cuban government and a New York grocery mogul paid for their April 2002 trip to Havana to meet President Fidel Castro. Earlier disclosure reports had specified only a Minneapolis-based conservation group, the Sian Ka’an Conservation Foundation, as the sponsor.

Rangel also took fire for allowing the sponsors to pay travel costs for his wife and son, a violation of House rules that allow only one family member to be reimbursed.

Rangel, who organized the trip for himself and Kaptur, has since reimbursed the Cuban government and the New York businessman, John Catsimatidis, for his son’s portion of the $5,766 trip.

Rangel’s chief of staff, George Dalley, called the filing an honest mistake. “We believe we have now adequately corrected what I admit was a mistake. We weren’t trying to hide it. ... Our practice has always been that we try to abide by whatever laws and regulations exist at the time,” he said.

Rangel has been a frequent traveler to Cuba and a vocal opponent of the U.S. embargo against the country.

Supporters of privately funded congressional travel say that such trips provide opportunities for lawmakers and aides to learn more about issues before them without forcing taxpayers to foot the bill.

Critics argue that the trips give wealthy interests unchecked access to power and can lead to corruption.

Golf trips to Scotland are at the center of an expansive federal investigation of congressional corruption that has netted plea agreements from lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Scanlon was once a senior aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

During the five and a half years ending in 2005, DeLay’s office spent about $500,000 of other people’s money on travel, topping the report’s list. That total is nearly three times the annual salary of a party leader in the House.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) accounted for $150,000 in trips — his yearly salary is $165,200 — in five years, mostly paid for by the nonprofit Aspen Institute. Nearly 3,000 of the 23,000 privately sponsored trips identified in the report cost $5,000 or more, including 500 that cost at least $10,000 and more than a dozen amounting to at least $25,000 apiece.

Destinations included Australia, Grand Cayman, Paris, Rome, Hawaii and Pebble Beach, Calif., home of one of the nation’s top golf courses.

Lawmakers in both parties and in both chambers have reason to be nervous about how the public perceives privately funded jaunts to prime vacation spots. Recent polls show that less than one-third of the public approves of the job Congress is doing.

Attentive challengers can turn incumbents’ travel patterns into potent political issues.

Two years ago, Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) found travel to be a powerful weapon in her successful bid to unseat longtime Republican Rep. Phil Crane (R), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and onetime presidential candidate. Bean labeled the well-traveled Crane the “Junket King” to portray him as out of touch with his constituents after more than three decades in Washington.

In other cases, voters have been more forgiving, at least for a while.

The House refused to seat Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (D-N.Y.) in 1967 after he took lavish, publicly funded trips to exotic locales while spending little time legislating in Washington.

“He is a study in contrasts,” fellow Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.) wrote of Powell that year. “Brilliant but erratic; a self-styled ‘poor parish priest’ but living like a member of the jet set; working hard for a few days to finalize a major bill, then flitting off to Europe or the Bahamas for weeks.”

But Powell’s constituents fired back at the House, electing the oft-vacationing Powell to fill the vacancy caused by the House’s refusal to seat him. He won another two-year term after that.

Powell’s lifestyle eventually caught up to him at the ballot box: In 1970, he lost a primary to Rangel, now the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee.

Candidates across the country already are grappling with the question of whether they would vote to ban privately funded travel. The House voted to block privately funded trips through the end of the year, but the two chambers have yet to complete action on the legislation.