Lawmakers May Have to Fund Own Trips

Times Staff Writers

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), seeking to distance his party from the lobbying scandal that has enveloped Congress, on Tuesday proposed putting an end to one of the most popular perks on Capitol Hill -- travel paid for by private groups.

He also wants to double the amount of time that a former lawmaker or senior staffer must wait before lobbying Congress, and put strict limits on gifts that lawmakers may accept.

If the proposals became law, they would significantly change the way business is done on Capitol Hill. Senate Republicans on Tuesday announced their own emerging package of lobbying and ethics reforms that included a travel ban.

"I know that fact-finding trips are important," Hastert said. But such travel, which sometimes takes lawmakers to luxurious resorts and exotic locales, "has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it," he said.

Every year, trade organizations, think tanks and other groups spend millions of dollars funding trips -- whether they be one-day workshops in congressional districts or weeklong travel abroad.

Most of the trips, lawmakers and staffers say, are policy-heavy affairs put on to educate members of Congress about issues. And banning them, some say, would make it harder for them to get real-world knowledge of matters that arise on Capitol Hill.

Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea this month to federal charges of fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials has made it politically difficult to defend any privately funded trips. So House Republicans are moving to ban them all.

Scrutiny of Abramoff-arranged trips contributed to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and former House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) being forced from their leadership posts. Federal prosecutors are examining trips those lawmakers took with Abramoff to a Scottish luxury golf resort.

Hastert's proposed travel ban would have to be adopted by the Senate before it could become law. He also is seeking to make the House floor and gym off-limits to former congressional members who become lobbyists, a rule change that simply would require House approval.

As for the gift rules, Hastert said: "A member of Congress should be able to accept a baseball cap or a T-shirt from the proud students of a local middle school, but he or she doesn't need to be taken to lunch or dinner by a Washington lobbyist."

The speaker's proposal would ban former lawmakers or staffers from lobbying Congress for two years after leaving Capitol Hill; the current rule is one year.

Hastert has been criticized by some members of his party for failing to act more aggressively to deal with the ethical problems that seemed to mushroom on Capitol Hill last year.

He now faces a potentially divisive fight within the Republican Party to replace DeLay as majority leader, with three declared candidates vying to be seen as a reformers.

Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), who is running for majority leader, said Tuesday that he opposed banning all privately funded travel. "A complete ban ... would be an overreaction that doesn't get to the root of the problem," Shadegg said in a statement.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) -- who has become an outspoken critic of Hastert's leadership but is not seeking DeLay's former post -- issued a statement saying that no package of reforms would be complete without a ban on earmarks, or money designated for individual projects. Earmarks are a popular device for inserting pet projects into spending bills, often at the last minute and without scrutiny.

The Senate proposals detailed Tuesday by Republicans John McCain of Arizona and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania would ban privately funded travel and would bar lobbying of senators by their relatives, a step not contemplated by House Republicans.

McCain, who is drafting a bill, said he would support a ban on earmarking. That could be the toughest reform to push through Congress, where lawmakers from both parties boast at election time of the projects they have delivered to their home districts or states. The Arizona senator, who in the past has derided the earmarks as pork, said that short of a ban, he would like to see lawmakers have to justify the projects.

McCain said he would push to make the reform effort bipartisan. But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said in a statement, "The idea of Republicans reforming themselves is like asking [late mobster] John Gotti to clean up organized crime."

Senate Democrats plan to unveil their own ethics reform package today.

While congressional leaders were proposing to do away with privately funded travel, some lawmakers defended the practice Tuesday.

Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), just back from a four-day trip to Jamaica with several other Congressional Black Caucus members, said such travel was crucial -- particularly for junior Democratic lawmakers who often were cut out of government-funded committee travel. The Jamaica trip was funded by the Inter-American Economic Council, a nonprofit group that said it aimed to provide government, business and academic leaders with opportunities to talk about economic issues in the region.

During the four days, Meeks said, he held nonstop meetings with government officials and business leaders. "We had an hour of downtime here and there, but we used those to change clothes," he said. "Every evening we had dinner with somebody from the business sector or government, to talk business while you ate."

The group studied cargo security, drug trafficking issues and regional issues, Meeks said.

Some groups that underwrite such trips said that most had real educational benefits.

"For almost 10 years now, we've been taking pilgrimages to Selma, Ala., with members of Congress to give them an experiential trip to see a place and time when civil rights manifested itself," said Walker Lambert, a spokesman for the Faith & Politics Institute, a nonprofit civil rights group.

The group also funds a congressional retreat for members, their spouses and senior staffers each year, Lambert said. Such trips would be banned under the Republican proposal.

The Selma trip, Lambert said, is a three- to four-day outing led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) -- a pioneer in the civil rights movement -- to sites of clashes between activists and local police. The purpose, Lambert said, "is to give you the courage to stand up to injustice." The group, he said, does not lobby Congress.

If such trips are banned, Lambert said, his organization probably will ask members to come on their own dime.

Dick Clark, a former senator from Iowa who is a vice president and director of the Aspen Institute's congressional program, said that if Congress banned all travel, "you throw the baby out with the bath water." The nonpartisan institute -- with a mission to "foster enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue" -- does no lobbying and receives no money from lobbyists.

If Hastert's proposal is passed, Clark said, "it would mean the end of even legitimate travel for most members of Congress." The program he runs, Clark said, sponsors five conferences a year -- including a trip last week to Mexico that drew 15 members of Congress, and trips to Istanbul and Hawaii. It brings together scholars and lawmakers for working sessions.

Larry Noble, executive director of the reform-minded Center for Responsive Politics, said he was less interested in the specific changes being proposed than in seeing what steps Congress was willing to take to enforce existing laws and rules and any new ones imposed.

The House Ethics Committee, he pointed out, has been unable to function for a year, even as problems have piled up. The committee has been paralyzed by partisan disputes over rules and staffing, and has not pursued any investigations.

"Without enforcement, all these rules are meaningless," Noble said.

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