Congress Cuts Down On Interest-Group-Funded Travel

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Members of Congress and their staff accepted barely one-quarter as many trips from private interest groups last year as they did only two years before, according to LegiStorm, a web company that provides information about Congress. Congressional travelers filed reports of 1,320 trips costing $3.73 million that they took courtesy of private interest groups in 2007.

Increasingly, this travel is sponsored not by well-heeled interest groups with narrow public policy interests but by universities, foundations and think tanks which have broader educational missions. While travel paid by private companies and interests has by no means disappeared, it is far less conspicuous now.

quarter as many trips from private interest groups last year as they did only two years before, according to LegiStorm, a web company that provides information about Congress.

Congressional travelers filed reports of 1,320 trips costing $3.73 million that they took courtesy of private interest groups in 2007, down dramatically from the peaks in trip number and cost. In 2004 4,684 trips costing $10.21 million were taken, and in 2005 4,797 privately funded trips cost $9.77 million. The number of trips reported continued its decline even from the 2006 total of 1,848 trips, although the total spent increased from $3.56 million thanks to more-expensive foreign journeys.

The decline in privately financed travel comes as scrutiny has increased and ethics rules have tightened since the scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff blossomed in 2005.

"Not only have congressional trips decreased but the character of those trips has changed dramatically as well over the past two years," said Jock Friedly, a former congressional investigative reporter who is president and founder of LegiStorm. "Increasingly, this travel is sponsored not by well-heeled interest groups with narrow public policy interests but by universities, foundations and think tanks which have broader educational missions. While travel paid by private companies and interests has by no means disappeared, it is far less conspicuous now."

Privately financed congressional travel has been a topic of concern for government watchdogs in recent years because of the extraordinary opportunity that trips offer for private interests to sway public policy.

"It is fascinating to see how greater public scrutiny of these trips appears to have virtually shut down some of the more patently absurd trips," Friedly said. "In the past, we saw such things as cruise ship inspections paid by cruise companies and visits to European capitals to investigate airport baggage security systems. But you can't really find much of that in 2007. It is proof that transparency can modify behavior."

Some of the biggest corporate trip sponsors of the past few years appeared to suspend sponsorship of congressional trips altogether in 2007. Since 2000, Microsoft Corp. has sponsored more than 250 trips to educate members and staffers about relevant issues like piracy and antitrust laws, or even to celebrate the launch of the Xbox video game system. Yet the Seattle-based company sponsored not a single trip last year.

Likewise, the Nuclear Energy Institute has ferried hundreds of congressional aides in recent years to Las Vegas, Nev. where they could take in shows and gamble while learning about the importance of the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository to the nuclear industry. None of those trips occurred in 2007.

Lavishly financed excursions to Taiwan sponsored by an industry group, with major government involvement, had been among the most popular trips taken by congressional staff, with scores of staffers making the trip each year. Last year, there were no trips reported by this industry group and only two total to Taiwan.

The pro-Israel lobby proved its enduring clout as Israel remained a favored travel destination. More than 1 in 5 dollars spent on congressional travel in 2007, or 22%, was to that country, with most of the money coming from the American Israel Education Foundation. In all, $831,331 was spent on 75 separate Israel trips. Germany and China were also top foreign destinations, although the funding was from more diverse sources.

In 2007, the bulk of the congressional trip funding was for more-expensive visits to foreign countries. While foreign countries were the destination in only 423 of 1320 trips, or 32%, these trips cost $2.78 million of the $3.73 million total, or 75%

The busiest month by far was August, when Congress recesses and members and staffers have time for extended foreign trips. Some $1.26 million, or more than one-third of the total for the year, was spent on travel that month.

LegiStorm maintains a comprehensive database of more than 27,000 privately financed congressional trips based on the disclosures required of members of Congress and their staff by the House and Senate ethics committees. LegiStorm.com makes all trips, including images of the actual documents filed, freely available to all users.
Members and staffers have 30 days to file their trip reports so all 2007 records are now supposed to be complete, although in the past a few straggling filers have sometimes taken months or years to submit their paperwork, if they file it at all.

LegiStorm, founded in September 2006, maintains the only database of congressional staff salaries. The site features numerous other resources, such as personal financial disclosures of members of Congress, political headlines and cartoons, House and Senate floor and committee schedules, and reports from the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accountability Office, and the White House.

LegiStorm is a sister company to Storming Media, a provider of Pentagon documents, and PatentStorm, a provider of U.S. patent information.

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