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Travel Delays

It’s true, as Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) contends, that the House may need a new system for screening Member travel paid for by private groups. But implementation of the system — which, conceivably, could include a ban on all trips paid for by outside interests — should wait until completion of the House ethics committee’s investigation of travel by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and, possibly, other Members.

We agree with Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the ethics committee, who says that changing the rules immediately could create the suggestion “that the rules themselves are to blame for improper Member conduct.”

Ever since allegations surfaced that DeLay may have taken trips to Scotland and Russia paid for by lobbyist Jack Abramoff in violation of House rules, Republicans have been throwing out evidence that many other Members have taken trips paid for by private groups and have failed to report the fact. The implication is that “everybody does it,” including high-ranking Democrats.

After Mollohan urged a slowdown in developing a new approval system, Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean repeated the GOP case. “With dozens of Republicans and Democrats, including Minority Leader [Nancy] Pelosi and Minority Whip [Steny] Hoyer, potentially having problems with the rules on privately funded travel, and more than 200 lawmakers rushing to amend their travel disclosure reports, it is clear that the present system is not working and we need private travel reform that includes specific preapproval of trips,” Bonjean said.

As Mollohan pointed out, a preapproval system already exists. It takes too long to process requests, and it ought to be revised — but that should not be confused with Members’ failure to report trips. Nor should it be confused with the serious allegations against DeLay.

The Majority Leader has asked for an investigation of the trips sponsored by Abramoff, who was indicted last week on federal charges in a different matter, and the committee should give him one as promptly as possible. It’s against House rules to accept travel paid for by a lobbyist or a lobbying firm. DeLay claims that, to the best of his knowledge, these were “study trips” and were paid for by a foundation — the National Center for Public Policy Research — even though Abramoff, a board member of the foundation, took special-interest clients along on at least one of the trips.

There’s evidence that Abramoff paid some of DeLay’s expenses, and it’s clear that the foundation was reimbursed for some of DeLay’s expenses by gambling interests seeking DeLay’s favor. DeLay asserts he knew none of this. He may well be vindicated. Now that it’s supposed to be functioning at last, the ethics committee should take up the DeLay case forthwith, so that it’s resolved before the 2006 elections.

At the same time, it’s clear that the NCPPR served as a pass-through, front or money-cleansing device — call it what you will — for Abramoff. The case raises the question: Why should Members be allowed to travel on the tab of corporations or foundations, but not lobbyists? We’re not proposing a ban on privately funded travel. But it’s something the House should look at. And that argues for a delay in the implementation of any new system for handling travel clearances.

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