THE nation's capital once again is embroiled in an ethics debate - this time about congressional travel. The issue: Should members of Congress accept free trips paid for by banks, insurance companies, trade associations, publishers, and other private interests?
US senators took 1,100 privately funded trips during 1987-88, says a new study of federal records by Congress Watch.
John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, the Senate's top traveler, chalked up 37 expense-paid trips in that two-year period. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah accepted 34 trips, the second-highest number.
Most of the trips were within the United States. But a few were to places like Austria, Switzerland, Greece, and South Korea.
Senators argue there is nothing wrong with privately funded excursions. In fact, they argue the trips are a plus. The trips help senators stay in touch with what's happening across the US and around the world, they say.
Congressmen contend the trips are beneficial for the government, even when the bills are paid by lobbyists for defense contractors, tobacco companies, medical associations, and others with strong financial interests in federal legislation.
Critics say that's nonsense. They insist that if a trip is really important to the government, then taxpayers should foot the bill. It's critical, they say, for congressmen to maintain their independence from special interests.
The latest debate was triggered by a study conducted by Congress Watch, which is part of Public Citizen, a research organization founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.
Michael McCauley, a field organizer for Congress Watch, supervised the study. In an interview, Mr. McCauley noted that the use of free trips is widespread. Only five out of 100 senators turned down free travel during the past two years.
Meeting lobbyists firsthand
McCauley says all the senatorial trips were officially for either fact-finding or speechmaking. But he argues that actually many trips were ``for no other purpose than for ... lobbyists to meet firsthand with the lawmaker.''
Lobbyists find the trips give them special access to lawmakers beyond what is available to other citizens, McCauley says. Such special access raises the potential for conflict of interest, he argues.
As an example, McCauley points to travel by Sen. Jake Garn (R) of Utah. McCauley says federal records show that during a six-month period, the Huntsman Chemical Corporation paid the air fare for Senator Garn to make four trips that included stops in Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok, Los Angeles, and Selkirk, N.Y.
``When you have four separate trips, funded by one corporation ... over a pretty short period of time, clearly there is the potential there for conflict of interest,'' McCauley argues.
Mary Jane Collipriest, press assistant to Senator Garn, says the Huntsman-funded trips were all official business, tied to Utah economic development.
Garn was accompanied on some of the trips by John Huntsman of Huntsman Chemical, as well as Gov. Norman Bangerter (R) of Utah. As a Utah company, Huntsman funded the trips in an effort to expand business - a purpose that Garn considered beneficial to his constituents.
Congress Watch takes the position that without exception, congressmen should be subjected to the same travel rules as members of the President's Cabinet. Thus, McCauley says: ``If a trip is a legitimate trip to advance the public interest, it should be afforded a travel allowance. [The senator] should fly coach, and receive the standard per diem for expenses.
``We think this will help in the long run to eliminate some of the more frivolous trips. They will have to pass the scrutiny of the leadership of the Senate, or the relevant committee, just as junkets that are now taxpayer funded have to be subjected to this scrutiny.''
Senator Breaux, the No. 1 traveler, declined to comment on the Congress Watch study. But Senator Hatch, the No. 2 traveler, strongly defends privately funded trips. He explains:
``There are groups all over the country that I want to talk to because I want them to support some of the things we are doing. But anybody who thinks being away from home and going on overnight trips is a lot of fun has never done it. It is no fun. But it is essential for a senator who wants to promote legislation.
``I turn down 10 requests for every one I accept. We very carefully accept only speeches which will help to advance the legislation we are proposing.''
Critics of privately funded travel point out that some lawmakers turn their excursions into mini-vacations, with golfing, fishing, and hunting as part of the expense-paid agenda.
But records indicate that most trips are for only a day. And while some trips are to vacation spots, like Hawaii, most are to business centers like New York City (the most frequent destination), Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami.
Hatch is critical of Congress Watch for its travel study. He says:
``What bothers me is that you have these self-anointed people who never run for anything, who've never had to advocate within a legislative body, but only criticize and take cheap shots. I will fight to preserve their right to sit back and take cheap shots and criticize, but we ought to take it for what it is: cheap shots and criticism.''
Policy unlikely to change
A Capitol Hill source familiar with the issue of travel doubts that Congress will change its travel policy to make the government pick up the tab. Such a change would only add to the federal deficit, he says.
But one revision might be considered. Privately funded travel could be limited to only three days: one day to travel to the destination, one day to conduct business, and one day to return. That would reduce suspicions that corporations were paying for expensive congressional vacations.
Senators scoff at the notion that free trips paid for by lobbyists could sway their votes. But they do admit to one concern. Reports about free trips raise anew public doubts about the integrity of Congress. And in the long run, that could be harmful to the Senate, the House, and the image of the federal government.
McCauley also feels that image is important. He says: ``With the sad perception that the American public has about Congress, members should be concerned about not only conflicts of interest that have been documented, but the perception of conflicts of interest. They should do all that they can to correct that situation. Doing away with these trips would be a small step toward improving the perception ... about Congress.'' Senators Who Traveled Most on Special-Interest-Group Funds...
1987-88 1. Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) 37 trips 2. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) 34 trips 3. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) 33 trips 4. Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ariz.) 30 trips 5. Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine) 29 trips 6. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) 26 trips 6. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) 26 trips 7. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) 24 trips 7. Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) 24 trips 8. Sen. J. James Exon (D-Neb.) 23 trips 9. Sen. Alan Dixon (D-Ill.) 22 trips 10. Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) 21 trips
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) 21 trips
Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) 21 trips ...And the Most Popular Destinations 1. New York 94 trips 2. Los Angeles 79 trips 3. Chicago 57 trips 4. West Palm Beach, Fla. 41 trips 5. Miami 39 trips 6. San Francisco 26 trips 6. Dallas 26 trips 7. Boston 24 trips 8. Phoenix 21 trips 9. Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 20 trips 10. Las Vegas, Nev. 18 trips Source: Public Citizen