- The Washington Times - Monday, January 1, 2007

Schedule, scandals to limit trips


The January junket to warmer climates — a post-holiday tradition of sorts for some members of Congress — could be headed to the wayside.

An accelerated work schedule set up by the new Democratic leadership has put a halt to many January excursions funded by lobbyists. Given that Democrats are taking over the House and Senate in part because of Republican ethics scandals, some lawmakers are fearful of the voters’ wrath anyway if they go on the trips.

“I think members are looking more closely at privately funded travel, and I think … many of them are being careful and avoiding it,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania Republican.

The last time members had to work much of January was in 1995, when Republicans took control of the House, said Todd Hauptli, senior executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives.

For the past 21 years, except for 1995, his organization paid for members to fly to Hawaii to discuss airline issues at a conference. This January, members are declining the offer and will participate by videotape.

“They can’t really be scooting around the country when Congress is in session,” Mr. Hauptli said.

Members also will miss out this month on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where TiVo digital recorders and Nintendo video-game consoles were first shown. The Consumer Electronics Association spent thousands last year sending a few members and their staffs to the show, where they stayed in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said the group does not expect any lawmakers to use rooms reserved for them this month at a hotel near the site of the annual Detroit auto show, where new cars and technologies are showcased. Instead, the group is encouraging members to attend the Washington auto show later in the month, said spokesman Charles Territo.

“We’ll continue to look at other ways to educate members of Congress,” Mr. Territo said.

Attention surrounding the excesses of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is in federal prison, brought the practice of lobbyist-funded travel to light. Abramoff defrauded American Indian tribe clients of millions of dollars while arranging lavish trips and meals for public officials.

After the scandal broke, expenses for privately funded travel by members dropped from $3.6 million in 2005 to about $1.5 million in 2006, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign spending.

Both the House and Senate passed changes in lobbying laws and rules last year under Republican leadership, but neither chamber voted to ban privately funded travel. The two chambers were not able to bridge their differences and produce final legislation.

Democrats have promised to tackle the issue of ethics again in 2007.

Rep. Todd R. Platts, Pennsylvania Republican, said there are plenty of trips that members can take without lobbyists covering the bill. Mr. Platts said he invites people to his district office if he wants to meet with them for a long time. He also has gone abroad — four times to Iraq and two times to Afghanistan — to visit troops.

“If it’s something that has any business, in relationship to your job, your job is going to pay for the travel,” Mr. Platts said.

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