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GOP Freshmen Eye Travel Ban

With the House ethics committee still stalemated and unable to address the controversy surrounding Member travel, a handful of Republican freshmen are working on a proposal to ban all privately funded trips until the panel can deal with the issue.

The Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has still not organized for the 109th Congress as Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and ranking member Allan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) have remained locked in a dispute over the makeup of the panel’s staff.

At the same time, dozens of lawmakers have scrambled to disclose their privately funded trips or revise their previous disclosure forms as the media have turned their focus to the issue. Given that environment, many lawmakers have said they are reluctant to accept invitations until they understand which trips are allowable and which aren’t.

Until those guidelines are clearer, a group of GOP freshmen that includes Reps. Charles Boustany (La.) and Mike Conaway (Texas) has informed Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) that they are working on the idea of a temporary ban. They have yet to settle on the form such a proposal would take.

“This is simply an issue that is being discussed as one possible way of ending this political standoff,” said Conaway spokesman Ken Spain. “Congressman Conaway believes that this is something that might be worth revisiting after the July Fourth recess.”

Many lawmakers, including Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have argued that the sheer number of lawmakers who have had disclosure problems makes clear that the current rules are insufficient and need to be revised.

“We need a new travel proposal,” said sophomore Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), adding that the ethics committee should vet proposed trips and sponsoring groups ahead of time so that there is no confusion after the fact.

Feeney said Congress should not be “an island” and argued that privately funded trips could be extremely useful. As an example, he said that he is currently “trying to work out a trip to China sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

But other Members, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), have suggested that lawmakers simply need to do a better job adhering to the rules that are already on the books.

“Her position is that the rules are clear; people need to follow them,” said Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider. “However, if anybody does want to change the rules, it ought to be done in a bipartisan fashion.”

In some respects, the controversy surrounding private trips is similar to the one over the House Bank scandal of the early 1990s. In that case, the charge for reform was led by recently elected Members who had not been in office long enough to bounce checks or become implicated in any wrongdoing.

Similarly, the freshmen who are pushing for a travel ban have not had enough time since being sworn in in January to log many frequent flier miles or fail to fill out the proper travel disclosure forms.

But even among freshman Members, there remain differences of opinion over whether halting private trips is the right answer.

“My recommendation would be that they set up a [special] committee to look at the whole travel deal,” said Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who is in the first term of his second stint as a House Member. “But I would hate to see them on an interim basis ban all private travel. … That assumes that all those trips have no possible value.”

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