Travel rules eased in new guidelines

The House and Senate have approved internal rules banning most lobbyist-funded travel for members and their staffs. But lobbyists can still underwrite one-day trips for lawmakers to visit a site, give a speech, attend a forum or sit on a panel.

The House and Senate have approved internal rules banning most lobbyist-funded travel for members and their staffs. But lobbyists can still underwrite one-day trips for lawmakers to visit a site, give a speech, attend a forum or sit on a panel.

And that lobbyist-funded travel has been expanded to allow a second night’s stay in some cases, according to new guidelines the House ethics committee released last night.

Lobbyists can pay for a second night stay if the ethics committee determines “that such expenses are necessary due to availability of transportation to or from the event, or in those circumstances when an additional night’s stay is practically required in order to facilitate the individual’s full participation in the event,” the guidelines state.

Other factors that will determine whether the committee will allow a second-night stay include: whether the trip is located outside the United States or involves travel across two or more time zones; whether the member or staffer is participating in a full-day’s worth of “officially connected activities”; or any other “exceptional” circumstances.

A lobbyist can also be involved in a member’s travel if it’s for a one-day trip and the travel is sponsored by an institution of higher education or if the ethics committee determines that the involvement of the lobbyist in planning, organizing, requesting or arranging the trip is “negligible or otherwise inconsequential in terms of time and expense to the overall planning and purpose of the trip.”

The new guidelines also allow members and staffers to accept up to business-class transportation on commercial airlines or trains for committee-approved travel.  But there are special allowances for more expensive transportation if the committee first determines it’s reasonable. 

Members and staff can travel first-class or use a chartered or private plane if the member demonstrates that the cost of the travel is not higher than the cost of business-class transportation “or if the traveler uses the traveler’s own frequent flyer or similar benefits to upgrade to first class.”

This appears to address questions raised by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and others about whether a member can travel in a privately owned aircraft under the new rules.  Changes to the House ethics rules passed in early January included a provision banning members and staff from using “personal funds, official funds or campaign funds for a flight on a non-government airplane that is not licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] to operate for compensation or hire.”

Members have questioned that provision, noting that the FAA licenses pilots and carriers, not individual planes. 

Lawmakers and aides also can travel first-class, by charter or in private aircraft if “genuine security circumstances” require it or if the scheduled flight time exceeds 14 hours.

In addition, the new guidelines allow members and staffers to attend events such as annual meetings of business or trade associations and stay in the same lodgings as long as they are “commensurate” with the quality, or location of other event attendees, although they do not address how many attendees must have the same quality of lodgings. In essence, the guidelines leave open the possibility that a lawmaker or aide could argue that his accommodations are “commensurate” with the lodgings of the top officers of a trade or business group even though most members of the group have more modest accommodations.

While at annual meetings, rules governing meals at “widely attended” events apply.  Members and aides can accept meals related to the event if they are “similar” to those provided to or purchased by other event attendees.

The guidelines require trip sponsors to complete and sign a “private sponsor certification form” and provide a copy of it to the member or staffer invited and are strongly urged to do so 30 days before the scheduled travel. The lawmaker or staffer invited then must submit an approval form with the sponsor’s form attached to it to the ethics committee.