A top official in the Bush Administration, David Safavian, is on trial right now for lying about a golfing trip to Scotland taken by a lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney, and funded by a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.
What's unusual about this story is the fact that a White House official tried to cover it up. Lobbyist-funded travel is standard operating procedure for lawmakers in Washington. In fact, a new study released today found that lawmakers and their aides, Republicans and Democrats alike, spent $50 million on privately funded travel between 2000-2005.
That amounts to 23,000 trips and 81,000 days (or 222 years) of travel, to such popular locales as Paris, Italy and Hawaii. The top offenders, whose offices accepted more than $350,000 in travel costs, include powerhouse Republicans like Tom DeLay, Joe Barton and Roy Blunt, and sleazy Dems such as DLC-favorite Greg Meeks.
"Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations," writes the Center for Public Integrity, the study's lead author. "In many instances, trip sponsors appear to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."
Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert proposed a ban on such travel after Abramoff pled guilty in January. But incoming Majority Leader John Boehner, another frequent flier, quickly nixed the idea. Under the new lobbying "reform" bill passed by the House, these trips must be cleared by the dormant House Ethics Committee--until December that is, when the provision conveniently expires after the midterm elections.
The abuse is bipartisan. "Of the two dozen congressional offices on which trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were occupied by Republicans," the study found. "Of the 25 individual lawmakers who each accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel for themselves, 17 were Democrats."
This system, not surprisingly, breeds special favors, also known as corruption. One small San Diego-based defense contractor, General Dynamics, spent more than $660,000 on 86 trips for Capitol Hill legislators and aides. General Dynamics enjoyed close ties to indicted Rep. Duke Cunningham and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, whose lobbying firm of choice, Copeland Lowery, is also under investigation by the FBI.
Countless similar tales, no doubt, are waiting to be told.
Ari Berman, based in Washington, DC, is a contributing writer for The Nation, a contributor to The Notion and a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.
2006 The Nation