WASHINGTON - June 20 - The House Ethics Committee is expected to shortly announce new rules that would provide for the Committee to pre-approve privately-funded trips taken by House members in this country and around the world.
''Pre-approval by the thoroughly discredited House Ethics Committee of privately-funded trips for House members is simply a way for the Committee to legitimize and perpetuate the existing system of widespread travel abuses by House members,'' according to Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer.
''A pre-approval process will ensure that private interest influence-seekers can continue to buy access and influence with House members by providing them with substantial financial perks in the form of expensive trips to desired locations domestically and throughout the world,'' Wertheimer said.
According to a recent study issued by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), the Representatives on the House Ethics Committee and their staff alone spent nearly $1 million on privately-funded trips during the period from January 2000 to June 2005.
Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the Ranking Democrat on the Ethics Committee, and his staff, led the way for Ethics Committee members, with about 80 privately-funded trips at a cost of $245,000 during the five and a half year period, according to the study.
''Is there any reason to believe that Representative Berman thinks that the 80 or so trips he and his staff took were improperly funded and should not be approved in the future by the Ethics Committee?'' Wertheimer said. ''Given his own past travel record, is there any reason to believe that Representative Berman is going to be prepared to crack down on his colleagues' trips in the future?'' Wertheimer added.
''The same concerns hold true for other members of the House Ethics Committee, who, with their staffs, have spent large sums on privately-funded travel according to the CPI study,'' Wertheimer stated.
In addition to Chairman ''Doc'' Hastings (R-Wash.) and his staff, who spent $70,000 on privately-funded trips during the period, the top spenders, including staff, were Representatives Gene Green (D-Texas), $198,000; Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), $130,000; Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) 95,000; Tom Cole (R-Okla.), $78,000 and Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), $60,000.
According to the CPI study of House Ethics Committee members, ''The Democratic members took in excess of 140 trips--more than their Republican counterparts by a 4-to-1 margin. According to disclosure forms, the travel expenses of Democrats and their staffers also accounted for more than $690,000, roughly 70 percent of sponsors' spending.''
The CPI study found that members of Congress and their staff, as a whole, received nearly $50 million in privately-funded travel during the period, including at least 200 privately-funded trips to Paris, 150 to Hawaii and 140 to Italy.
In a letter sent to members of the House Ethics Committee on June 12, 2006, five reform groups expressed their strong opposition to the creation of a pre-approval process by the House Ethics Committee for privately-funded travel for Members.
The groups include the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG. The groups stated in the letter:
We strongly oppose the use of pre-approval by the House Ethics Committee to legitimize privately-funded travel for two basic reasons.
First, pre-approval by the House Ethics Committee of privately-funded trips will not stop the widespread abuses that have occurred in the House as a result of private groups paying for trips by Members whose decisions and votes they are trying to influence. At the same time, it will reduce a Member's own accountability for taking privately-funded trips.
Second, the House Ethics Committee has no public credibility. The Committee has failed to enforce even the limited existing House ethics rules governing travel, failed to investigate the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandals and failed to even function during most of this Congress.
There is no reason for the public to have any confidence in decisions by the House Ethics Committee about what is acceptable privately-funded travel, even if such a process was an effective way to end travel abuses by Members, which it is not.
If members of Congress are traveling on official business for public purposes, it is the public that should pay for such trips, not private interests.
The five reform groups further stated in their June 12 letter:
There is no reason to believe that a system of pre-approval of privately-funded trips for Members is going to stop vacation-type trips for Members to Paris, Hawaii, Italy and the like.
There is no reason to believe that a system of pre-approval of privately-funded trips for Members is going to stop private interests from using privately-funded trips to gain special access to and influence with Members, and in particular with the most powerful members of the House.