The fact-finding, frequent-flying US lawmakers

Lobby groups helped legislators and aides take 23,000 trips over the past five years.

When did wanderlust become a sin?

I can imagine that members of Congress and their staffs, after working over a hot earmark all day, would enjoy traveling to some distant place. And I can imagine that, not wanting the government to be saddled with the cost, they would find some public-spirited lobby to foot the tab.

So, why do public interest organizations like the Center for Public Integrity make such a fuss about it when they find that, over a period of about five years, legislators and their aides took at least 23,000 trips costing a total of about $50 million?

One can immediately understand why Sen. Richard Lugar (R), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would want to visit some of our foreign relations like Finland, Mexico, and the Grand Cayman Islands. And why Rep. Thomas Bliley (R) of Virginia would want to spend some time in London as a guest of the British-American Tobacco Company, a customer for Virginia tobacco. And why San Diego's ex-Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham took many trips – before he went to jail, that is – as a guest of General Atomics, whose Predator unmanned spy plane was developed in his district.

But is there any real need to dwell on these coincidences? Let me give proper credit to some of the champion freebie travelers – that is, members and staff who took more than 200 trips in those 5-1/2 years: Tom DeLay, former majority leader; John Boehner, current majority leader; and Dennis Hastert, speaker. Many more Republicans than Democrats, who, being out of power, were less able to express their gratitude.

One Democrat who caught my eye was Charles Rangel of New York, who journeyed to Cuba and met Fidel Castro, the trip bankrolled by Gristedes Foods and the Cuban government.

Cuba was an unusual destination for congressional frequent fliers. The favorite destinations for these fact-finding sorties were Paris, 200 times; Hawaii, 150 times; and Italy, 140 times. For fact-finding legislators, there were many pleasant facts to find. I imagine that the legislators got to keep their frequent flier miles. Who could begrudge them that?

Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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