The argument that “everybody does it” is usually the first refuge of a scoundrel. But in the travel-related ethics case embroiling Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, it is largely true. When it comes to trips funded by private interests, DeLay isn’t even a particularly blatant abuser. Throughout the past four years, DeLay has ranked 114th among all representatives in the number of trips taken.
The scandal here isn’t DeLay so much as a system designed to get representatives and their spouses free trips to gay Paree and other desirable locations, even as they pretend to labor under a strict ethics regime.
The House rules prohibit travel funded by lobbyists. That would be unconscionable. But they permit travel funded by corporations, trade associations and nonprofits, with lobbyists allowed to accompany lawmakers for the trip. The rules prohibit representatives from accepting gifts exceeding $50. That would be wrong. But they permit unlimited spending on representatives–and their family and staff–if they are on a corporate-funded “educational” trip. Golly. It almost appears as if Congress has created a system with an enormous loophole to satisfy its members’ lust for all-expense-paid luxe travel.
According to the Wall Street Journal, corporations and trade associations sponsored nearly 2,000 trips last year for members of Congress and their staff, at a cost of $3 million. Total privately funded travel since 2000, including from corporations and nonprofit groups, has been $16 million, reports PoliticalMoneyLine. The top five trip-makers are all Democrats. This isn’t because Democrats have a stronger taste for perks than Republicans. It’s just that the minority party–free of the burden of governing–has more time for sunbathing and sightseeing.
Certain locales must be particularly “educational” judging by how often representatives travel to them on someone else’s dime. Florida, Arizona, the Caribbean and Italy are apparently all meccas of learning. It’s a wonder anyone ever goes to Cambridge, Mass., to get an education, as opposed to, say, Boca Raton, Fla., or Scottsdale, Ariz. Wives often accompany their congressional hubbies (or vice versa in the case of congresswomen), apparently because it is so important that they too be “educated.” Ordinarily, of course, when a couple jets off to somewhere nice, it’s called vacation.
In January, according to the Wall Street Journal, 40 lawmakers and staffers–including DeLay and his wife–were flown to Hawaii and put up at the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel by the American Association of Airport Executives. There were sessions for a conference on airline issues in the morning, then the rest of the days were free so representatives could brush up on their snorkeling, essential to their ability to govern knowledgeably.
This is a rotten system. One of the reasons it exists is that the life of a representative–running from congressional vote to congressional vote in Washington, and then Rotary Club to Rotary Club at home–is hardly glamorous. Free vacations make it more tolerable, especially for the spouse.
But if a representative can’t take a $51 gift, he shouldn’t be able to take free $10,000 trips. What difference does it make if such a jaunt is paid for by the American Association of Airport Executives or by one of its lobbyists? The current rules are ripe for abuse, which is why a few Democrats are now in a similar situation as DeLay–the lobbyist Jack Abramoff initially paid for their trips against the rules, although the Democrats, like DeLay, say they didn’t know.
Private trips should be prohibited. That doesn’t mean representatives have to give up their passports. Travel can be genuinely educational, and worthwhile trips should be publicly funded. The burden of having to justify “taxpayer-funded” trips will be a check against excesses. Travel, then, will probably be to destinations like Darfur instead of Daytona Beach.
If Congress adopts such a reform, something good could come of the otherwise unedifying DeLay kerfuffle. Of course, free-travel-addicted members of Congress and their spouses might never talk to him again.
–Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.
(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate