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Hastert Asks for Travel Review

Seeking to address a major political liability for House Republicans, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) on Wednesday asked the ethics committee to devise a new system to review privately funded travel by Members and staff.

In a letter to Reps. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the panel’s chairman and ranking member, respectively, Hastert requested that the committee create a formal “approval system” for Congressional travel paid for by corporations, nonprofit groups and trade associations.

After pointing out that the Republican leadership had backed earlier this year a big increase in funding for Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, as the panel is formally known, Hastert wrote that he now wants some of that money spent helping Members and staff on both sides of the aisle have their trips properly vetted before they embark on them.

“I am writing to you today to encourage you to use those resources and establish an approval for privately funded travel as soon as possible,” Hastert wrote. “My conversations with a number of Members on both sides of the aisle lead me to believe that most Members would welcome such assistance as they strive to comply with the rules of the House.”

Hastert also committed to seeking additional funds for the panel if they are required in order to implement the new program.

Ron Bonjean, Hastert’s spokesman, said the inability of Members and staff to receive timely pre-clearance from the ethics panel for privately sponsored trips represents a “huge problem for Republicans and Democrats” that needs to be fixed quickly.

“Our Members are looking to get better guidance and review in order to keep within the House ethics rules” on such trips, said Bonjean. “The Speaker is suggesting we have private-travel reform as soon as they are able to address it.”

House Democrats were somewhat perplexed by Hastert’s initiative.

“The problem with privately funded travel isn’t the rules, it’s that Members weren’t following them,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Lobbyists and lobbying firms cannot pay for such trips, although corporation, nonprofits and trade associations can. “The question is whether the ethics committee would be able to approve trips in advance without full information about the trip, participants, agenda and activities.”

Several top House Republicans, particularly Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (Ohio), face allegations that they took part in overseas trips allegedly paid for, at least in part, by former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under investigation for his business dealings with American Indian tribes. DeLay and Ney have denied any wrongdoing.

Democrats, though, have also had questions raised about the appropriateness of some their trips as well.

For instance, Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) traveled to the Commonwealth of the North Mariana Islands in January 1997, and Abramoff reportedly underwrote the cost of those trips.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) traveled to Boston in June 2001. That trip was paid for by a lobbying firm that had business before the Armed Services Committee, on which the Hawaii Democrat serves.

Since the Congressional travel scandal first broke last year, scores of Members from both parties have had to file, or refile, travel reports to more accurately reflect the sponsors of those excursions. One senior House GOP aide said Hastert’s plan would help both parties. “He’s trying to cover Members, not just Republicans,” said the GOP aide. “Take the politics out of this — does anybody believe that 200 Members were trying to skirt the rules and act in bad faith? Of course not.”

Hastert’s initiative would add to the already heavy workload facing the ethics committee. The panel has faced months of political stalemate as the two sides battled over three GOP-drafted revisions to House ethics rules, as well as the lines of authority for Hastings’ top aide on the ethics committee. Democrats eventually won both those fights, but the panel has been delayed in organizing and staffing for the 109th Congress. Mollohan said recently that he does not believe the committee will be able to begin reviewing any outstanding ethics cases until late September, at the earliest. That includes potential investigations of DeLay, Ney and other lawmakers caught up in the travel furor.

The committee also has to continue its investigation into Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) role into a illegally recorded December 1996 conversation between House GOP leaders.

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