WASHINGTON—Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., believes in traveling in style.
After Congress recessed for the Thanksgiving holiday, Lott and his wife avoided the commercial airport hassle and hopped a BellSouth corporate craft from Washington to Jackson, Miss.
Cost: $1,335. Comfort: priceless. Lott's political action committee picked up the tab, which covered both passengers.
This week the Senate is to debate new ethics rules that would make such trips much more expensive. The rules would make the lawmaker pay the full cost of chartering the aircraft instead of paying only a first-class passenger rate, and would make such trips much less attractive to sponsoring companies by prohibiting their lobbyists from being on board.
Lott, the most frequent user of corporate jets in Congress, according to the independent Web site politicalmoneyline.com, made at least 16 trips on corporate aircraft in 2006, reimbursing the companies more than $40,000 at the first-class ticket rate.
From 2001 to 2005, Lott spent $165,724 on corporate travel. That made him second only to former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., among more than 200 lawmakers using corporate jets. Edwards traveled a lot as he ran for president in 2003-04.
Taxpayers pay for lawmakers' routine travel home on commercial airlines; the lawmaker bills his or her office budget. Corporate jet travel is typically funded from a lawmaker's political action committee.
Lott, who reports payments from his PACs to such corporations as BellSouth and BNSF Railway Co., supports the ethics package overall, but seems reserved about proposed new restrictions on corporate jet travel.
"I think we need to have a lot more disclosure," Lott said as the Senate debate began. "I think you ought to have detailed trip identification or itinerary, and a listing of who was on the trip." But he added, "I do think we need to be careful. Are we going to totally ground ourselves around here?" As Lott is minority whip, the second-highest Republican leader in the Senate, his stand could carry significant weight with his colleagues.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who's pushing the ethics package, sees the corporate jet issue as symbolic of lawmakers who are out of touch with their constituents. A vote on the corporate jet amendment could come as soon as Tuesday.
"If a senator wants to fly on a private jet for any purpose, he or she should be required to pay the full cost of that trip, not a discounted rate," Reid said last week. "These reforms ... are designed to remove even the appearance of impropriety from this Congress, to send a strong signal to the American public that their elected representatives are not unduly influenced by the meals, travel and gifts that lobbyists and large corporations are willing to lavish."
Companies clearly see an advantage in the current arrangement.
"It's valuable to us and our shareholders," said Bill McCloskey, the director of media relations at BellSouth. "Let's face it, it gives us time with a member. It's all relationship-building."
McCloskey said that if a member of Congress was on board, so was one of the company's lobbyists: "That's our rule." McCloskey also said that BellSouth typically sponsored 20 to 25 such flights a year.
The new rules would make corporate travel costlier for lawmakers. Charter rates range from $1,450 to $2,800 an hour, with a two-hour minimum, according to Julie O'Brien of Frederick Aviation, a charter airline out of Frederick, Md.
Lawmakers also have been able to take corporate travel for free in some circumstances if the trip involves official business. Lott made a one-day trip from Jackson to Pascagoula, Miss., on Aug. 19 to speak at the christening of the USS Makin Island, an amphibious attack ship built by Northrop Grumman Ship Systems. The company sent a corporate aircraft to ferry him back and forth. Lott got the trip for free.
Lott also combined a book tour with a political speaking engagement in March, traveling from Washington to Houston on one of BNSF's Gulfstream 4 jets. He attended a book signing in Galveston, Texas, for his memoir "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics" and spoke at a local Republican women's group. Cost of the one-way trip: $1,559, paid for by Lott's PAC.
Lott defended the corporate-paid travel by saying, "you can't get everywhere you need to be with just automobile transportation. Should you have to report it? Should there be a limit on how you do that? Absolutely. But let's be careful about making it impossible for us to do our jobs."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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