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Archive for Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Junkets pose ethical problems

June 20, 2006

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Editor's note: The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune.

It is not news that some members of Congress take trips that are funded by somebody who wants to influence them. But when you look at the numbers you have to wonder: Does anybody in Washington ever spend a night at home?

The Center for Public Integrity, American Public Media and Northwestern University's Medill News Service found that private groups shelled out almost $50 million for 23,000 congressional trips by lawmakers and their staff members over a 5 1/2 year period. 23,000!

Only a fourth of the trips were taken by members of Congress. The rest were taken by their staffers, who generally are not known to the public but are critical to clout on Capitol Hill. They do the scheduling, research, gatekeeping and bill-writing that sets agendas and shapes laws.

Many of the trips would be considered legit. But the Capitol crowd also packed in 200 trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy.

Often the staffers hit the road without the boss. The office of House Speaker Dennis Hastert reported the most outside-funded trips - 247, at a tab of $438,000. Only two of those trips were taken by Hastert. A former aide to Tom DeLay took $49,000 worth of trips in two years, including a 25-day, round-the-world marathon - each leg funded by a different non-profit group.

Even if much of the travel has a legitimate purpose, it creates an inherent conflict of interest. If travel is needed for lawmakers or their staffers to do their jobs, it should not be financed by groups that have an interest in the outcome of legislation. If the travel serves the public's interest, it should be funded by the public.

In the wake of Washington's embarrassment over the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Congress has debated a slew of proposed ethics reforms. But nothing much seems likely to happen. The members seem to anticipate that the public will get tired of an arcane debate over elaborate rules designed to make Washington a more honest place.

This case doesn't demand a lot of complicated rule-making. Try this: If you're on the government payroll, if you're traveling for a government purpose, the government should pick up the tab. If you take yet another business trip to Paris or Honolulu, the boss - the taxpayer - may have something to say about it.

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