Groups paid $16M for trips, report says

Members of Congress have taken more than 5,000 privately funded trips since 2000 while accumulating more than $16 million in travel expenses on sponsors’ tabs, according to a new report by a group that tracks political funding.

Corporations, trade associations and charitable organizations have picked up the tabs for the trips, which ranged from one-day excursions to give commencement addresses to weeklong overseas fact-finding tours.
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Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) led all lawmakers in amount spent by outside groups for his travel.


Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), a likely Senate candidate, took 61 privately funded trips between 2000 and early 2005, the most of any sitting member of Congress, according to the report, which was compiled from publicly available travel disclosure reports on the PoliticalMoneyLine website, www.politicalmoneyline.com.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) led all lawmakers in the amount of travel money expended on their behalf. Sponsors spent $167,960 for Sensenbrenner’s travels, which ranged from witnessing a rocket launch in Kazakhstan to attending a legislative exchange program in Singapore and Tokyo.

The findings come as several members of Congress, most notably House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have come under fire for taking privately sponsored trips allegedly paid for by lobbyists or registered foreign agents, which is a violation of House ethics guidelines.

Those guidelines allow lawmakers to participate in trips sponsored by companies, trade groups or charities, although ethics watchdog groups have criticized such travel as merely another way that special interests wield power in Washington.

Ford’s chief of staff, Mark Schuermann, defended his boss’s extensive travel.

“Congressman Ford spends time on these trips speaking to Tennessee and national groups, learning about issues and legislation that affect the group’s members and constituents and how policy shifts will affect his congressional district,” Schuermann told The Hill in a statement.

“In every instance, the congressman followed the rules of the House of Representatives and traveled to speak about legislative policies and learn about a subject matter important to his district.”

Recently retired Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) tied with Ford for the greatest number of trips. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) took the third largest number of trips, 56, during the same time period. A spokesman for Biden, Norm Kurz, said nearly half of the senator’s trips were for appearances on television news programs such as NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Rounding out the top five were Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters (Calif.) with 52 trips and Barney Frank (Mass.) with 51.

“As Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the post-September 11 world, I am responsible for numerous security issues including border, visa, and passport security, as well as intellectual property, and developing technology issues that require international cooperation,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement to The Hill.

He added, “Privately funded trips are an effective way for me to learn about these issues and press for international cooperation without having taxpayers foot the bill.”

Reps. Gene Green (D-Texas), Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) also received large amounts in travel, as well as Breaux.

Democrats were more likely to have participated in privately funded travel. Of 5,410 trips reported, 3,025 were taken by Democrats, 2,375 by Republicans and 10 by others.

Authors of the PoliticalMoneyLine study noted that, of the $16 million spent by outside groups on congressional travel, $8.8 million came from organizations such as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups that do not have to disclose their donors. The rest of the total came largely from trade groups ($4 million) and corporations ($2 million).

The Aspen Institute, a think tank led by former Time editor Walter Isaacson, was the biggest spender on congressional outings. The organization spent nearly $3 million on trips over the five-year period. The Ripon Society and American Israel Education Foundation spent between one-half and three-quarters of a million dollars.