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What Will the Congressional Travel Controversy Mean for K Street?

Given the rigamarole of security screenings and bumpy flights, taking a trip can be stressful for anyone.

But if you’re a Member of Congress or a Capitol Hill staffer going somewhere on the dime of a private group, junkets these days have become all the more burdensome, as travel falls under intense scrutiny.

In recent weeks, the media have lavished attention on several overseas trips taken by such lawmakers as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) because of evidence that the trips may have ultimately been paid for by lobbyists — which, if true, would be a clear no-no in the House and Senate ethics rules.

DeLay’s travel records aren’t the only ones under the microscope. Other Republicans and Democrats face similar scrutiny for possibly allowing lobbyists to pick up the tab.

But while lobbyists cannot pay the check for Members’ travel, a range of other interested parties are free to do so, including corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups.

Yet while such trips are permitted, lobbyists who help plan Congressional travel say that interest on Capitol Hill has cooled, due to the recent spate of bad public relations.

One GOP Congressional aide said that his office has not made any new policies about travel, but that individual staffers are reluctant to accept invitations for travel opportunities from groups or companies. And a GOP lobbyist said, “I think for Members and staff trips right now, there is a deep and wide chilling effect on both sides of the aisle.”

The lobbyist added that Member and staff interest in foreign travel in particular is slowing down.

Several Members’ offices did not return calls seeking comment about whether the increased scrutiny on Congressional trips would affect their own future travel plans.

The current fracas over Congressional travel has led government reform groups and even some lawmakers to jump at the opportunity to call for tighter regulations of privately funded excursions.

“I think there’s no question that, based on a series of recent stories, it is very clear that the gift and travel rules have to be strengthened,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates for campaign finance and lobbying reforms. “One basic change here would be to make the ban on lobbyists paying for travel real by requiring that their clients also not pay for the trips.”

In fact, ferrying lawmakers to far-flung locales to get a ground’s-eye view of the issues is considered one of the most effective tools for groups trying to influence the process in Washington.

And lobbyists say that by not going on trips that are on the ethical up-and-up, Members and their aides will miss out on opportunities to make better educated decisions.

Michael Herson, president of American Defense International, whose clients have funded Congressional trips, said, “It would be a travesty if people stopped because they’re afraid.” He added, “And I’m afraid I see it starting to happen.”

While most lobbyists and trip organizers say they think many of the privately funded junkets will continue, everyone agrees that Members and their staffers will, at the very least, be more cautious about the sources of funds for the trips.

“I think companies, trade associations and nonprofit groups will be much more careful, but I doubt they will stop using this particular lobbying technique, because it is so effective,” said lobbyist and campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease.

Kappel said that most staffers and groups already conduct such travel by following the ethical guidelines.

“They know that they need to get a formal letter from the ethics committee, not just an informal opinion over the phone,” he said.

Elvis Oxley, executive director of the Ripon Society, a tax-exempt organization that funds Members’ travel, said he, too, always demands an ethics letter in writing.

In January, the Ripon Society sponsored its first annual policy trip to Key Biscayne, Fla., he said.

“This one was a biggie,” said Oxley. “We really put forth a significant effort both on the ethical side and on the planning.”

While some critics charge that these jaunts are simply an opportunity for lobbyists to schmooze with lawmakers, Oxley said people came to his program for the policy briefings.

“Sen. [Chuck] Grassley [R-Iowa], who joined us down there, was sitting in the front row of the audience after his commitment was completed,” Oxley said. “He sat there and took notes on No Child Left Behind.”

Another lobbyist, Jeffrey Taylor, a chief of staff to then-Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.), said that as a former Hill aide, he knows the importance of Congressional travel.

“If they want to tighten up the rules on foreign travel, that would be fine — you can always have further oversight or more disclosure,” said Taylor, who chairs the federal practice at Barnes and Thornburg. But it’s not a good idea to put an end to the whole practice, he said.

“It’s one thing to read briefings or read books. … It’s another thing to actually go there and shake hands and touch people and experience the Middle East, experience Asia, experience the former Soviet Union,” Taylor said.

Mark Glaze, director of government ethics for the Campaign Legal Center, said it is difficult to balance the educational part of the trip with ethical restrictions.

“It’s actually beneficial for public officials to travel and learn something about the world they’re operating in,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s probably not a good idea to have them spending time eating shrimp cocktail and playing golf with officers of corporations that have business before them.”

Kenneth Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom, said it’s not necessarily the activities that are at fault but rather the fuzzily written rules that don’t give Members sufficient guidance about how to look into sponsoring groups.

That’s a problem because it’s not always readily apparent where groups get their cash. Take one of the controversial DeLay trips, for instance. Supporters of DeLay say he believed that a think tank was paying for the trip. More recently, evidence has emerged that the think tank, the National Center for Public Policy Research, may have been a pass-through for lobbyists, according to news reports.

“What it means to make an inquiry should be fleshed out. What do I do? Open the window and yell out, ‘How was this paid for?’” Gross said.

A draft House bill that would tighten lobby regulations would also require every organization that pays for Congressional travel to list all sources of support for that travel. The bill’s chief architects are Reps. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.).

Jerry Climer, president of the Congressional Institute, puts on an annual Congressional retreat for House and Senate Republicans. Members who attend, Climer said, pay for their own transportation, room and board, so he said he doesn’t expect a drop-off in attendance.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get away from the normal hubbub of activity, to get to know one another better, listen to outside presenters.”

Climer said lobbyists, whose companies donate money to the institute, are invited to participate in a reception at the retreat. But, he added, “they are not integrated in the big retreat.”

Oxley added that he’s not concerned that Members’ interest will wane in the Ripon trips, either.

“Our Members of Congress that we involve know we will do things the right way, and if they ever need the Xeroxed copy of the ethics approval, we will have that at the ready,” he said.

Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.

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