Politicians Still Cashing in on Free Trips
The rules have changed, but Florida's congressional delegation is still getting a free rides, paid for by private interests.
From left: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Ander Crenshaw, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Ginny Brown-Waite and Cliff Stearns [Illustrations: Rob Zammarchi]
In 2007, after a scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff revealed how lobbyists were using lavish trips to curry favor and buy face time with lawmakers, Congress enacted stricter rules governing privately funded travel.
Until that point, lawmakers could accept free trips as long as the trip was related to the lawmakers’ “official” duties and wasn’t being paid for by a registered lobbyist or an individual representing a foreign country. But the golf junkets to Scotland that Abramoff secretly organized for several lawmakers, including former Florida Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Oviedo), reflected how easily the system could be abused. Abramoff, who has admitted that he used the trips to try to get lawmakers to do things for his clients, had his underlings help the congressmen and staffers who took the trips fill out their disclosure forms to conceal the actual cost of the trips and who had paid for them.
Today, such trips require more disclosure. The House or Senate Ethics Committee must approve each trip and will only sign off on a trip if the travel conforms to congressional rules and is substantially connected to a member’s official duties in Congress. Trips that include “excessive amounts of unscheduled time for opportunities for recreational activities during the official itinerary” are out of bounds. Organizations that employ registered lobbyists may not sponsor trips exceeding two days, and a group’s lobbyists may not accompany a lawmaker or congressional staffer on the trip. Lawmakers must also file post-trip reports within 15 days of their return from a privately funded trip.
The increased scrutiny of privately funded trips and the resulting crackdown appear to have dampened some lawmakers’ appetites for jet-setting, according to records posted on LegiStorm, a Washington, D.C., organization that tracks congressional travel, as well as congressional salaries, financial disclosures and earmarks. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Delray Beach), who took $174,004 worth of privately funded trips between 2000 and 2005, has not taken a single junket since July 2005 [“Top Traveler,” page 52].
Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Miami), who is currently running for U.S. Senate, also has curbed his privately funded travel. The 43-year-old Democrat has accepted more than $86,796 worth of free trips during his seven-year congressional career to, among others, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; the Caribbean islands of St. Kitts and Nevis; Jerusalem; Delhi, India; and Doha, Qatar. Since November 2005, however, Meek hasn’t been on a private junket.
Even with the new constraints, Florida lawmakers have gotten approval for 72 trips valued at $153,140 over the past 23 months — although the trips tend to be less lavish than those under the previous rules.
Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville), for instance, took three trips last year, none of which could be categorized as extravagant. Trade Press Publishing, which publishes Progressive Railroading Magazine, paid for her one-day trip to a conference New York, where she gave an update on upcoming regulations for the rail industry. Her two other trips included a one-day visit to Orlando, where she gave the welcoming remarks at the 37th Quadrennial Convention of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and a three-night trip to Tunica, Miss., where she attended the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education and Leadership Institute’s annual policy conference.
Despite Congress’ overhaul, some loopholes remain. While lobbying groups are banned from financing lawmakers’ trips, their non-profit arms continue to do so. Although the pro-Israel lobbying organization AIPAC is prohibited from paying for lawmakers’ trips abroad, its affiliated non-profit, the American Israel Education Foundation, can, and does, pay for dozens of trips to Israel each year.
Next page: Some of the other locations Florida lawmakers have visited from 2000 to 2009.