This article originally provided by
The Washington Post
June 6, 2006
Privately Funded Trips Add Up on Capitol Hill
Report: $50 Million Spent in 2000-2005
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Over 5 1/2 years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers accepted nearly $50
million in trips, often to resorts and exclusive locales, from corporations and
groups seeking legislative favors, according to the most comprehensive study to
date on the subject of congressional travel.
From January 2000 through June 2005, House and Senate members and their aides
were away from Washington for more than 81,000 days -- a combined 222 years --
on at least 23,000 trips, according to the report, issued yesterday by the
nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. About 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or
more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more, and 16 cost $25,000 or more.
"While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding
missions," the study said, "the purpose of others is less clear." In addition,
the lawmakers' financial reports that disclose the details of the trips are
routinely riddled with mistakes and omissions.
Lawmakers and their staffers were treated to $25,000 corporate-jet rides and
$500-a-night hotel rooms, the study showed. Lawmakers accepted thousands of
costly jaunts -- one worth more than $30,000 -- to some of the world's choicest
destinations: at least 200 trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy.
"Congressional travelers gave speeches in Scotland, attended meetings in
Australia and toured nuclear facilities in Spain," the study reported. "They
pondered welfare reform in Scottsdale, Ariz., and the future of Social Security
at a Colorado ski resort."
Many congressional offices have voluntarily curtailed their privately funded
travel since disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to
conspiring to bribe public officials, in part with lavish overseas trips. But
lawmakers and their aides still may accept travel for official purposes from
private interests without limit.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) proposed banning such travel soon
after Abramoff's plea. But lawmakers of both parties and in both chambers of
Congress quickly resisted imposing significant new restrictions on the trips,
which are a much-prized perk of office. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) won
election to the post of House majority leader this year by running on a platform
that included opposing the travel ban.
Boehner and members of his office were among the top beneficiaries of
privately funded travel, according to the study, taking more than 200 trips
during the 5 1/2 -year period reviewed. Others included the offices of Rep. Joe
Barton (R-Tex.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rep. Michael G. Oxley
(R-Ohio), Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.).
Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Boehner, said yesterday that privately funded
travel by members of Congress is fully disclosed and "leads to greater
understanding of the issues" at no cost to taxpayers.
One of the largest corporate sponsors of lawmakers' travel was General
Atomics, a relatively small San Diego-based defense contractor that makes the
Predator, an unmanned spy plane now in wide use by the United States and other
countries. The study reported that the company "largely targeted congressional
staff members, spending roughly $660,000 on 86 trips for legislators, aides and
their spouses from 2000 to mid-2005." Some of the trips were valued at more than
General Atomics' spending on congressional travel was more than that of many
larger companies and was considerably higher than what other defense contractors
spent. Microsoft, for instance, funded nearly $395,000 in trips during the
period; SBC Communications Inc. spent about $205,000. Among General Atomics'
defense competitors, Northrop Grumman spent about $12,000 on congressional
junkets and Boeing spent about $13,000.
On trips paid for by General Atomics to Turkey and Australia, congressional
staffers attended meetings with foreign government officials that the company
was soliciting to buy the Predator.
"[It's] useful and very helpful, in fact, when you go down and talk to the
government officials, to have congressional people go along and discuss the
capabilities of [the plane] with them," Tom Cassidy, chief executive of General
Atomics Aeronautical Systems, the company's aircraft-manufacturing subsidiary,
told the center.
The center's study illustrates how widespread the practice has become, for
both Democrats and Republicans. Of the 25 individual lawmakers who accepted more
than $120,000 worth of travel during the period, 17 were Democrats. Of the two
dozen congressional offices on which private trip sponsors spent the most money,
15 were Republican, the study said.
At least 150 of the disclosure forms scrutinized by the center did not list a
sponsor. After the center contacted her, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.), a
candidate for Senate, amended her 2003 form to fill in the name of the group
that paid for her two-day visit in November to the Breakers in Palm Beach, Fla.
-- the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. A spokesman for Harris called
the omission "a staff error."
After he was contacted by the Center for Public Integrity, Rep. Charles B.
Rangel (D-N.Y.) reimbursed the Cuban government and John A. Catsimatidis, a
grocery store owner, $1,922 for expenses incurred by his son, Steven, during a
trip that Rangel, his wife and his son took to Cuba to study the ecology there
in 2002. House rules permit sponsors of lawmakers' trips to cover the cost of
only one accompanying relative. A Rangel spokesman said the office had not been
aware of the rule.
The House had more frequent fliers than did the Senate during the period. The
10 congressional offices that accepted more than 200 privately sponsored trips
each were all in the House, as were the 11 offices that had travel expenses
exceeding $350,000 each. The 10 most expensive trips were taken by members of
the House or, in one instance, a House aide.
The study, which took nine months to complete, found many instances in which,
the center said, "trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected
officials or their advisers." Several of the sponsoring organizations defended
their trips, saying they provide lawmakers with an opportunity to discuss issues
in a relaxed setting.
"If you try to talk to a member for any great length of time about your
issues while they're in Washington, they're simply too busy," Tom White, a
spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, told the center.
The center's study was co-sponsored by American Public Media and Northwestern
University's Medill News Service.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company