House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert yesterday asked the House ethics committee to come up with a system for approving privately funded travel, wading into the ongoing debate on travel and ethics complaints in advance of Congress’ summer recess.
Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, wrote to the top Democrat and Republican on the ethics panel, telling them the increased committee funding they have requested should pay for a system to preapprove trips.
“I am writing to you today to encourage you to use those resources and establish an approval system for privately funded travel as soon as possible,” Mr. 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.”
Hundreds of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been snared in furors over improperly funded trips, insufficiently disclosed details and simple clerical oversights. House ethics rules permit travel by members to be paid for by companies and outside special-interest groups, as long as the travel is reported to the clerk. Travel paid for by lobbyists, however, is not allowed.
Scrutiny has focused mostly on House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has accepted 14 trips during the past five years totaling more than $94,500, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Democrats said Mr. DeLay’s situation is worse than most because his trips were paid for by lobbyists, though Mr. DeLay says the situation needs clarifying and points to memos from the committee in the 1990s that suggested lobbyists could pay for trips and later be reimbursed by an interest group.
Under the new system Mr. Hastert proposed, members would gain pre-clearance for trips.
In talking points sent to Republicans, the party’s House leaders acknowledged “media scrutiny” of members’ travel, which has caused many to have to refile their disclosure forms to comply with the rules.
Ron Bonjean, Mr. Hastert’s spokesman, said the letter gives both Republicans and Democrats something to go back home to show constituents during the August recess that Congress is cleaning up the travel rules.
Democrats, though, said the letter doesn’t solve the real issue.
“The problem with privately funded travel isn’t the rules. It’s that members weren’t following them,” said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “The question is whether the ethics committee would be able to approve trips in advance without full information about the trip, including participants, the agenda and the activities.”
She also questioned whether this was the right way to start a process of revamping the rules.
“If Republicans want to change the rules on privately funded travel, they should sit down and do it in a bipartisan way, the way that the 1997 rules were changed,” she said.