A Very Good Ticket to Ride
It’s getting harder to hide congressional “fact-finding” missions to beach resorts and golf courses.
Tougher ethics legislation is making its way through Capitol Hill, even as federal agents raided the home of Alaska senator Ted Stevens as part of a widening corruption probe. And information made available by LegiStorm, an online database of congressional information (including the salaries of Hill staffers), has made it easier to track trips by senators and representatives.
According to documents on the Web site, in the past seven years US representatives, senators, and their staffs have set out on more than 27,000 national and international excursions. The total cost of the trips is in the $50-million range, mostly underwritten by private donors, universities, trade groups, or nonprofits.
Massachusetts’s Barney Frank leads the way on the Hill, having taken some 84 trips paid for by outside parties since 2000.
Wisconsin representativeJim Sensenbrenner’s trips—from his 2007 one to Oslo, Norway, to talk homeland security to his 2001 trip to Guatemala for an undisclosed purpose—cost $220,859.
Florida representative Robert Wexler’s 20 trips cost $174,004, with one fact-finding trip to Kazakhstan totaling $29,951, the second-most-expensive congressional trip in the past seven years behind only former Virginia representative Tom Bliley’s 2000 London trip, sponsored by Brown & Williamson Tobacco, which cost an average $6,000 a day.
In the Senate, presidential hopeful Joe Biden leads the pack with 65 trips, including one to Colorado for a foreign-policy conference that included $8,000 for a chartered plane. The cost of Biden’s 65 trips—$163,758—ranks third in the Senate behind Indiana’s Richard Lugar and Evan Bayh. Lugar took 28 trips, including to Honolulu and Cancun, on the Aspen Institute’s tab, and 17 of Bayh’s were sponsored by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
In 2002, Democratic presidential hopeful Christopher Dodd took a golfing trip in his home state sponsored by the native Mohegan tribe.
Kathryn Lehman, former Texas representative Tom DeLay’s chief of staff, took 46 such trips, the most of any Hill staffer. Brian Gaston, formerly of Texan Dick Armey’s congressional office and now with Missourian Roy Blunt’s, spent the most, $96,689.
The 37 fact-finding visits that Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman, Huma Abedin, made for the senator in that period cost $64,406. In 2002, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland sponsored three of Representative Steny Hoyer’s staffers on a trip to the museum to “learn about their music-education programs.”
In 2004, for a weeklong conference in Venice on US/Russia/Europe relations, the lodging bill for now-Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and wife Elaine Chao, now Secretary of Labor, ran to $3,750. Three years later, McConnell was instrumental in passing a sprawling new ethics bill just before Congress adjourned for the August recess—and another round of “fact-finding” trips.