Last month, the Senate rebuffed an amendment for pending ethics legislation asking freeloading lawmakers to pay the whole cost of taking flights on corporate jets.
Now the House is poised to act on ethics and lobbying measures when members get back from a two-week spring break to do some work between vacations. The pending GOP-drafted House proposal for dealing with corporate subsidized flights is no reform.
The problem is this: At present, members of the House and Senate are allowed to ride on private jets owned or leased by corporations. They have to pay only the price of a first-class ticket, which hardly covers the costs of operating the aircraft. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) takes corporate subsidized jet rides. Last year, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) accepted this corporate discount 23 times before ending the practice in January, after he was named the Democratic lead on ethics. Most of this travel is fund-raising related.
There are a few problems with allowing lawmakers this perk of power. Taking the discount rides basically allows a member of Congress to take a gift from a corporation that would be impermissible in cash. The flights also allow a member of the company to send a lobbyist or officer along, granting incredible access to a lawmaker. The ill-fated Senate amendment — which Obama strongly argued for from the Senate floor — would have forced lawmakers riding borrowed planes to pay the full market rate.
The House remedy for this ethical ailment is cunning. In the legislation to be advanced to the House floor, the suggested cure is to merely ban the lobbyist representing the company, or working for a lobbying firm retained by the corporation, from being a "passenger or crew member on that flight.''
"You could still have the CEO of the company sitting with you,'' said Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
It's a cosmetic patch designed to fool the public. And once again, in this ethics debate triggered by the lobbying scandals surrounding convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, it is an attempt by Congress to control the behavior of lobbyists rather than themselves.
"The solution here is to require members to pay the full market value of the ride,'' said Fred Wertheimer, the president of Democracy 21, another watchdog organization.
House trip perks
The pending House bill titled the "Lobbying Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006'' has a provision to trick people into thinking it is seriously dealing with problems associated with private interests paying for trips for lawmakers.
Abramoff's schemes included lavishing travel on some lawmakers and congressional staffers, and a golfing junket to Scotland figures in the federal probe. Once the Abramoff outrages burst on the nation's front pages, Hastert and Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) called for a ban on private travel and gifts. But Hastert and Dreier could not sell a ban to their GOP colleagues.
In the pending legislation, that outright ban — which may have been an overreaction — is diluted down to a moratorium on private-paid trips until Dec. 15, which is after the November elections. The moribund House ethics panel, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, is supposed to use the time to study the situation.
Now not all trips are junkets. Congressional travel done the right way should be encouraged.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been in Congress since 1981 and just weeks ago took his first foreign trip, to China. Schumer said he never traveled because in his early years in the House he thought his rivals would portray him unfavorably as a globetrotter if he left town. I want lawmakers to be familiar with China, a growing economic giant whose trade policies affect all of us.
Outside of the corporate subsidized jet flights, which are nearly impossible to defend and a separate issue, there are other types of more substantial congressional travel. There are official delegations, paid for by the government and called congressional delegations, that are not part of this current ethics debate. On Wednesday, Hastert and seven other lawmakers, including Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and their wives, wrapped up a four-day congressional delegation to India and Vietnam. A stop in Nepal was canceled because of the threat of violence.
Then there are private sector special-interest bankrolled tours to places a lawmaker may not otherwise go if he or she had to pay. And there are trips sponsored by non-profits, think tanks and the like that are educational in nature.
The most controversial are the private paid trips to seminars or forums that just happen to be at luxury destinations and are thinly veiled free vacations.
"Everyone agrees that it is good for members of Congress to get out in the world,'' Pingree said. But lawmakers still are a long way from figuring how to do it right.