WASHINGTON — Congress is embroiled in ethical problems - again. In recent days and weeks, these have expanded to include government contracts for hurricane relief and Senate majority leader Bill Frist's (R) of Tennessee sale of stock from a blind trust.
But mainly they revolve around a lobbyist named Jack Abramoff and his associates. Prominent among these is House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, who was indicted in Texas last week on a charge of conspiracy to violate the state's campaign-finance laws. Another is David Safavian, who was recently arrested a week after he resigned as a White House budget official. The charges: lying to investigators and obstructing a federal inquiry about Mr. Abramoff. Before moving to the White House, he was chief of staff of the General Services Administration when Abramoff was trying to buy the Old Post Office Building in Washington. Mr. Safavian's wife is chief counsel for oversight and investigations of the House Government Reform Committee.
Abramoff's clients range from judges in Guam to Indian tribes who have struck it rich running gambling casinos. The judges feared restructuring of the judiciary in Guam, and Abramoff is being investigated as to his role in the removal of a federal prosecutor there. Abramoff allegedly talked the native Americans into paying for lavish golfing trips to St. Andrew's in Scotland for Mr. DeLay and his party. Abramoff is under indictment in Florida on charges involving his participation in the purchase of a fleet of gambling ships.
To avoid such embarrassments, Congress has enacted a web of ethical requirements for its members and staff. Most of these involve reporting costs of travel and entertainment paid for by others. The requirements are supposedly enforced by ethics committees in each chamber, but the committee in the House is inactive because its members cannot agree on its staff. Before this paralysis set in, the committee last year cited DeLay three times for ethical lapses.
PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan group that follows spending on travel, reports that since 2000, members of Congress have made 5,900 foreign and domestic trips, costing $17.6 million. In that period, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has traveled more on private money than any other member of Congress - $177,000 worth, including, among other places, Kazakhstan and Las Vegas. Mr. Sensenbrenner has argued that privately funded travel enables him to learn about issues important to the Judiciary Committee "without having the taxpayer foot the bill."
Surely, Sensenbrenner did not mean it is better for Congress to rely on private interest groups than on public funds to pay for its activities. Or did he? Would he say the same thing about operations of the White House? The Supreme Court?
Public financing provides salvation for most of Congress's ethical problems. If Congress believes it is in the national interest for members to be informed about foreign policy issues, then Congress should pay for their travel.
Congress long ago gave itself money for this. The original Marshall Plan legislation in 1948 included a requirement that countries receiving American assistance deposit in a special account an amount of the recipient country's currency equivalent to the amount of aid dollars. These counterpart funds were then available for use by the US government in those countries receiving aid.
Large balances of counterpart funds accumulated; and as the foreign-aid program expanded beyond the original Marshall Plan, they became available in more and more countries. It did not take long for Congress to make them available for congressional travel within those countries.
During most of the time this writer was a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (1950-1977) the committee's rule was that all foreign travel by members and staff had to be approved by the chairman and the ranking minority member of the committee.
Freebies could not be accepted. The German government once offered me an expense-paid 30-day trip to Germany - to go anywhere I wanted accompanied by an interpreter and talk to anybody I wanted, no strings attached. When I presented this to Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D) of Arkansas, the committee chairman, and Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper (R) of Iowa, the ranking Republican, Mr. Fulbright said OK - it was no more than the United States government does for selected foreigners. Mr. Hickenlooper said, emphatically, no. If the Foreign Relations Committee wants you to go to Germany, he told me, the Foreign Relations Committee will pay for it.
At the time, I was disappointed. As I thought about it, I decided Hickenlooper was right. Congress would be better off it it followed his precept today.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.