Dear Rich — as a former GOP House staffer, to add some thoughts to the discussion on Abramoff, privately funded travel, earmarking and its affects on the soundness of the Congressional process (in no particular order):
1) If one solution to this mess is banning all privately funded travel, remember that no Member of Congress (MOC) will go anywhere except Washington to speak before any group or participate in any conference, unless that group is in their district or state and is a potential vote for him. Plus, every journalist or publication who advocates banning all privately funded travel (personally I believe that many of the trips I saw my bosses take during the six years I worked in the House were truly educational and not junkets) should pledge to refrain from writing critical pieces on wasteful, government funded CODELs (Congressional Delegation trips), which would necessarily increase, and / or refrain from writing critical pieces on how MOCs don’t know enough about foreign countries because they never leave the U.S.
2) One of my responsibilities as a staffer was to manage the requests for project funding from our district — having been through the Congressional appropriations process 5 years in a row, I can assure you that earmarks are the buying of votes with taxpayer dollars. Members in tight races get more requests funded and at higher dollar amounts — party leadership ensures that targeted Members bring home more money, which they then tout to the voters.
Members make decisions on what projects to request from the Appropriators, and which project requests to emphasize, based on the politics of their district (where in the district their support is weak, where their population base is, is a good “friend” in the district supporting the project, etc.)
3) Congressional Salaries (& staff salaries): Sure, raise them. But consider that both parties declared a cease fire a few years ago on the Congressional pay raise (as federal employees they get the cost of living increase every federal civilian employee gets each year), and agreed not to use it as a political weapon against Members — yet every year in the press Members see the same tired old editorial or article about the Congressional pay raise, and “how Members of Congress voted themselves a pay increase yesterday.”
The press can’t resist the “look at the perks Congress gives itself” angle. There’s an Internet hoax that’s been floating around for at least the last decade or so about how MOCs don’t pay into Social Security, but have their own gold-plated version, which is false, but every Congressional staffer has dealt with it at one point or another.
4) And speaking of staff salaries (and the Congressional pay raise) — while Congress uses the “we’re just federal employees like everyone else) line to defend their pay raise — their own staffers don’t get the automatic pay increase. Explanation: The Legislative Branch spending bill usually contains an increase to the MRA (Members Representational Allowance – the pot of money each office gets to pay for its expenses: staff salaries, district office rent, computers, phones, mail, etc.) that would cover extending the pay increase to all Congressional staffer, BUT, because the MRA is increased, Members actually have the ability to use that extra money on things like, say, direct mail pieces to their districts about all the things they’ve done for their constituents, and aren’t required to pass that pay raise onto their own employees!