Monday, June 05, 2006

Fact-Finding Trips More Fun At Luxury Sites

Congress and their families and staffers know that "fact-finding trips" are more fun if they stay at resorts, playing golf, swimming and boating and side-stepping the laws regarding gifts from lobbyists. In a five year period, elected officials of both parties traveled to Paris, Hawaii, Italy or Colorado ski resorts.

A new study via the Center for Public Integrity notes officials and their families just seem to find more info regarding legislation as long as they stay far, far away from any actual constituents. Over 23,000 trips valued at over $50 million shows Congress has learned to sidestep the DeLay scandals just by claiming the trips were just for some seminar - as long as their families and aides get a long vacation retreat:

I think [legislators and staffers] are gaming the system," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies in Washington. "Education through travel is important, but it's just totally being abused. They give a one-hour speech and spend three days playing golf or tennis with their families."

Abandoning too much paperwork and required disclosure, the gravy train is full of hungry, greedy legislators at the trough. On example:

At least 150 forms list no sponsor. In one such instance in 2003, Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Fla., was a guest at The Breakers resort in Palm Beach, Fla., site of the Restoration Weekend event Nov. 14-16. Harris's form shows that her hotel room cost $1,032 and her meals $259.56. But it fails to reveal the trip's sponsor, itinerary or purpose, instead referring the reader to an attached three-page agenda.

The agenda designates 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Nov. 14 and 15 as "Free time for swimming, golf, tennis, shopping, etc." It also notes that DeLay was a scheduled keynote speaker on the 15th, and was to be introduced by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre. But it doesn't list the trip sponsor."

The article further states:

"It's clearly beneficial for these interest groups to make these expenditures," said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. "They're not just doing this without a purpose."

Stern said he is all for outside-the-Beltway education, and sees nothing nefarious in trips sponsored by universities and most nonprofits. "But if the trip is truly educational," he asked, "why do they have to go to exotic places?"

He thinks he knows why.

"The problem is human nature," Stern said. "We don't like to be educated in non-interesting surroundings."

Hey, I'd do great at a fact finding mission if I could only stay at Disneyworld and Hilton Head to determine the appropriate size of greens, clubs and caddies.


  1. Anonymous12:15 AM

    These things should be banned as illegal gifts.

  2. The current laws regarding gifts states:
    "The rules seem explicit enough: Lobbyist-paid travel is forbidden. Sponsored trips taken by members must be connected to their official duties, and all staffers' trips must be cleared in advance. And no gift of $50 or more may be accepted.

    In theory, congressional travelers are trusted to distinguish between a visit to war-ravaged Sudan and a long weekend in Antigua.

    In fact, the lines are regularly blurred and the rules virtually never enforced by the House and Senate ethics committees. Attempts at serious reform have faltered, and the system is largely self-policing. The legitimacy of trips is determined by the committees rather than by an independent body."

    So much for the law!