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Ethics Will Tinker With Travel Rules

Committee May Cut Paperwork for House Travel

The House ethics committee plans to tweak the chamber’s travel rules to cut down on paperwork two years after the House effectively banned lobbyist-sponsored junkets with stringent restrictions on privately sponsored trips.

In a status report released in mid-July, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, and ranking member Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) vowed to revise the travel rules first enacted in early 2007 as part of a slate of ethics reforms.

“The Committee is responsible for reviewing and approving all privately-sponsored travel related to official duties to Members and staff,— Lofgren and Bonner wrote in the report.

“The Committee is in the process of reviewing its travel regulations,— the report continued. “Exercising its oversight jurisdiction, the Committee, with the benefit of two years’ experience implementing the House’s travel rules, expects to revise its travel regulations in the near future.—

Lofgren and Bonner indicated Tuesday that the alterations would at least include clerical reforms, echoing goals that the pair outlined during an interview with Roll Call in mid-May.

“It’s a work in progress,— Lofgren said, adding that the process for approving travel “is inefficient.—

Bonner said the 921 travel forms that the committee has received through the end of June “just shows the volume of information that comes to us for clarification. Our objective is to try and streamline it.—

Under the current travel rules, each Member or aide preparing to travel on a sponsored trip must submit a multipage “approval request— to the ethics committee, which includes a certification from the trip sponsor that the excursion is permissible under House rules.

After the trip, each individual must file a post-travel disclosure with the Clerk of the House.

Bonner and Lofgren told Roll Call in a May interview that the process requires each individual on the same trip to submit essentially identical forms for review, suggesting it wastes staff time and House resources.

“We’ve commented privately about how we hope to get a better handle on getting out some of the needless bureaucracy,— Bonner said in May. “You’ve got 15 people going on the same trip, and we have to do 15 different letters.—

Lofgren added: “There’s got to be some way — whole forests are falling in front of us — to streamline and still have the transparency so the public can see it and the accountability.—

Government reform advocates are largely supportive of the existing rules, noted U.S. PIRG’s Lisa Gilbert, who characterized the 2007 reforms as “clear and comprehensive.—

Nonetheless, Gilbert said the rules could be fine-tuned by removing 501(c)4 organizations from the nonprofit groups that are allowed to sponsor travel.

Reform advocates have voiced concerns that the 501(c)4 groups, which are allowed to participate in political campaign activities as one of their functions, could establish related 501(c)3 organizations for the purpose of funding Congressional travel.

House ethics rules currently allow universities, colleges or other private organizations to sponsor travel so long as the groups do not employ lobbyists. Organizations that employee lobbyists may still fund Congressional travel, but those trips are limited to no more than one-day events with one night of lodging.

The ethics committee announced in June that it is investigating five Members who attended a privately sponsored trip to the Caribbean in 2007 and 2008.

An investigative subcommittee assigned to the matter focused its review on Democratic Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (Mich.), Donald Payne (N.J.), Bennie Thompson (Miss.) and Del. Donna Christian-Christensen (Virgin Islands). That probe is examining whether those trips, sponsored by the Carib News Foundation, violate House gift rules.

In addition, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has reported that the ethics panel is reviewing a trip that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) took to Saudi Arabia in December 2008.

According to the Minneapolis newspaper, the trip to the holy city of Mecca was paid for by the nonprofit Muslim American Society of Minnesota, and Ellison received approval from the ethics committee for private travel.

Under House rules for private travel, Ellison reported the trip on his annual financial disclosure but was not required to report the cost of the trip.

Ellison’s office did not return a telephone call Tuesday.

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