Over the weekend, the AP released a report detailing privately funded trips which were taken by members of the Pennsylvania Congressional delegation on the dime of special interests groups. The amount of trips taken by PA members has increased substantially since the 2007 conviction of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, with the number rising from 17 in 2008 to 47 last year in 2013.
Leading the big spenders is Rep. Charlie Dent, who accepted $47,041 for seven trips last year, and has thus far been gifted $44,688 for privately funded travel in 2014. Most notably, Dent racked up a $24,621 bill on a weeklong trip with his wife to Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan, at the invitation of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, and on the dime of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC). The reason given for the trip was a meeting with the Japanese prime minister concerning trade policy, a purpose that Dent also parlayed into an excursion to Germany earlier this year; a vacation which cost the USAFMC over $10,000.
While the other members of the PA delegation did not tally bills as large as Dent’s the AP report is still worth checking out for the specifics of their individual expenses, including hotel rooms in Palm Beach, Florida, for $450-per-night.
Technically speaking, all of these trips are legal, since they are privately funded and do not use taxpayer money. In the House, representatives are required to receive approval from the House Ethics Committee in advance, and then disclose all paid-for expenses within two weeks of their return, with similar practices being followed in the Senate. The issue with this lies in the leniency with which the Ethics Committee has begun to give these trips the green light.
Earlier this month, the House Ethics Committee came under fire when they quietly eliminated a requirement which made the personal financial forms necessary for each member. After intense scrutiny however, the Committee reinstated the forms, but it still strikes me as shady that they attempted to eliminate the requirement in the first place.
Although these trips appear harmless because of their private funding, the groups who pony up the money are special interests groups who attempt to sway legislator’s opinions. While the trips aren’t outright bribes, it stands to reason that a weeklong all-inclusive vacation is a pretty quick way to a person’s heart, and it can endear the lawmaker to a special interest group on a quite personal level.
With that said, some of the trips detailed incurred minor expenses, and often sent legislative staff members to important events via bus or car with normal hotel accommodations. However, with the number of approved excursions increasing rapidly, it stands to reason that many of the trips being taken are unnecessary, and should be denied by the appropriate Ethics Committee.
A faceless campaign contribution is one thing, but a free vacation with the wife at an extravagant hotel, screams corruption to me. After Abramoff’s conviction, members of Congress banned lobbyists from being involved in travel, and took a hard stance against accepting gifts or junkets such as these. Unfortunately, seven years later, it seems that the lessons learned have worn off, and increased regulation of the two Ethics Committees within Congress may be necessary.