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Private groups, corporations or trade associations—many with legislation that could affect them pending before Congress—paid nearly $50 million since 2000 to send members of Congress and their staffers on at least 23,000 trips overseas and within the United States, according to a study released Monday.
The trips included at least 200 journeys to Paris and 150 to Hawaii, room rates of up to $500 a night and some high-flying on corporate jets that cost up to $25,000 a trip, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service.
"Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations—often taken in the company of spouses or other relatives—wrapped around speeches or seminars," the report said. "In many instances, trip sponsors appeared to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."
Congressional aides took more than 70 percent of the trips, the study found.
While the travel isn't illegal, the report shines a light on how business is often done in Washington. It comes in a congressional election year when one of the biggest issues is corruption.
The findings also emerged as Congress remains deadlocked on legislation that would restrict contacts with lobbyists and impose new ethics standards on members. As scandals have emerged over the past two years, lawmakers moved to ban privately financed travel and do away with meals and gifts from lobbyists. Eventually, both the House of Representatives and Senate passed versions of ethics legislation, though neither banned privately financed travel. Negotiations to reconcile differences in the bills haven't begun.
Under current law, lobbyists are prohibited from paying for congressional travel. But a federal investigation into former lobbyist Jack Abramoff uncovered a scheme in which Abramoff used nonprofit groups to pay for extravagant Scottish golf outings for members and staffers.
A separate study by Political Money Line, a nonpartisan Washington watchdog group, has found that the number of privately financed trips by members of Congress declined this year. Between 2000 and 2005, members of Congress logged an average of 1,100 trips a year. As of April of this year, members had reported 291 trips.
Advocates of tighter ethics rules said the recent travel decline reflects public attention to the Abramoff scandal and others.
"As soon as the attention starts to fade, the travel will start to increase," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group.
The study released Monday found that Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and his aides accepted about $500,000 in trips since 2000. DeLay is resigning from Congress on Friday under a cloud cast by the investigation into Abramoff, who arranged trips for him.
The top 10 travelers identified in the study are all members of the House of Representatives and include House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. Spokesman Kevin Madden said Boehner met all congressional requirements for his travel, including prompt and public disclosure.
"Travel funded by private interests relieves taxpayers of having to cover the costs of educational travel," Madden said.
According to the study, among the top corporate sponsors of travel was General Atomic, a San Diego-based high-tech firm that has developed surveillance aircraft as well as wireless and laser technologies. The company spent $660,000 on 86 trips for lawmakers, staff and spouses from 2000 to mid-2005, the study said.
General Atomic, which developed the Predator spy plane, said in a statement Monday that the trips help expose lawmakers to its products and facilities. It added that congressional ethics committees review the travel agendas before each trip.
The private organization that spent the most on travel is the Aspen Institute, an educational organization that paid about $3.5 million to send lawmakers and their spouses to high-level conferences around the globe.
The institute's congressional program began in 1983 and is run by former Sen. Dick Clark, D-Iowa. It is nonpartisan and accepts money only from foundations, not corporations. The institute defended its travel policy, noting that by getting out of Washington, members can concentrate on subjects that are likely to come before Congress.
"The idea behind this is that senators are so distracted they never give enough focus to one issue," Aspen Institute spokesman James Spiegelman said.
Watchdog groups say groups such as Aspen generally fulfill a useful purpose and that lawmakers should try to write legislation that distinguishes between non-corporate educational travel and that paid for by corporations or industry groups.
"The lines are hard to draw because some of the fact-finding trips give people access to special interests," said Dennis Thompson, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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