Washington Kansas lawmakers have cut back on their privately funded travel over the past two years in the wake of ethics scandals that brought new scrutiny to the practice and a push to curb the influence of lobbyists.
A review of travel records shows that just two members of the state's six-member congressional delegation took trips on the tab of private groups this year, compared with four in 2006.
Over the past two years, Sen. Sam Brownback scaled back his private travel more than any other Kansas lawmaker. After taking 10 privately funded trips in 2005 worth more than $21,400, Brownback took only four such trips in 2006 worth $10,484. He took no trips this year, while he spent time campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination before backing out of the contest last month.
Private travel throughout Congress began declining sharply last year after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to bribe lawmakers with lavish trips and other perks.
"In the aftermath of the last election and the Jack Abramoff scandal, everyone was hesitant," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that backs travel reforms.
"There were questions about what rules were going to be and how they were going to be interpreted," McGehee said. "Nobody wanted to be the next poster child for having taken privately financed travel that looked bad."
In March, new House rules took effect that require lawmakers to explain the purpose of such trips and ask for approval from the House Ethics Committee. The rules also ban companies or groups that employ lobbyists from paying for more than a one- or two-night stay during the trip.
The Senate passed a similar lobbying and ethics reform measure this summer.
Brownback's trips last year included one to deliver a speech in Half Moon Bay, Calif. His $656.20 transportation and overnight hotel expenses were paid by Cerner Corp., a North Kansas City-based medical software developer.
Another Brownback trip, to deliver remarks in Minot, N.D., cost $9,039 and was paid for by the North Dakota Republican Party.
Brownback spokesman Brian Hart said the senator welcomes congressional travel reforms and voted for the recent lobbying-reform bill.
Republican Rep. Jerry Moran, who represents western Kansas, took two privately funded trips in 2006 but none this year. On one 2006 trip, the Federal Home Loan Bank paid a total of $902 for Moran and his daughter to travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., where Moran gave a speech at the Kansas Bankers Association annual meeting.
Moran said he has been busier this year dealing with all the weather-related natural disasters affecting the state. But he thinks the new travel rules provide a new level of accountability for members of Congress.
"For me to travel outside of Kansas, it takes a unique set of circumstances and must be an opportunity for me to gain a better understanding and expand my knowledge or expertise about an issue that will benefit Kansans," Moran said.
Republican Sen. Pat Roberts took no trips this year and only one in 2006 to speak at a three-day Congressional Advisory Board conference in Palm Beach, Fla. The Ripon Society, a Republican-leaning public policy group, paid $4,509 in transportation, lodging and meal expenses for Roberts and his wife.
Rep. Dennis Moore, a Lenexa Democrat, said one reason for the drop-off is longer work weeks under Democratic leadership, leaving less time for travel. Moore has taken no privately funded trips for the past two years.
"The reforms put in place in both the House and Senate have not only made important changes to ensure transparency and accountability, they have also put lobbyists on notice that they need to be far more judicious with these invitations," Moore said.
McGehee, of the Campaign Legal Center, pushed this year for an outright ban on all privately funded travel. But, she said, "We just couldn't get there."
She and other reform groups believe lawmakers benefit from traveling to sites affected by legislation but that the trips should be publicly financed.
"The problem with these privately financed trips is you have these conflicts of interest," McGehee said.
Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a Republican who represents the Wichita area, reported one privately funded trip this year for $1,091 to deliver a speech at Evangel University in Springfield, Mo. He also had one trip the previous year.
In her first year in Congress, Topeka Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda reported taking one paid trip from Topeka to Kansas City, Kan., to see economic development progress. The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce paid the $881 cost.