Third parties spare no expense on Indiana congressmen
By David L. Haase
WASHINGTON (March 7, 1998) -- Corporations, trade groups and think tanks with interests in federal legislation treated Indiana's congressional delegation to trips to places as diverse as Williamsburg, Va., and Johannesburg, South Africa.
Groups such as Sprint, Focus on the Family and NBC-TV spent more than $170,000 in a little over a year on 116 trips for Indiana lawmakers and their aides, congressional travel records show.
That travel -- though legal -- raises questions about whether lawmakers and their staffs can remain objective when they make decisions about proposed laws affecting the very groups that gave them the free trips.
Those groups get an unprecedented amount of time with members of Congress or their aides while they're traveling. And time is one commodity in short supply for both lawmakers and their staffs, given the hectic pace on Capitol Hill.
What's more, access to staff members is almost as valuable as getting the ear of a member of Congress. Staffers often are the ones who make the decisions that shape how the lawmakers ultimately vote on issues.
Congressional ethics rules require only that free travel must relate in some way to congressional duties and travelers must report the cost of their trips within 30 days.
A review of 1997 travel records by The Indianapolis Star found:
Retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats traveled more than any other member of the Indiana delegation, logging 12 trips that cost his hosts $22,064.
Republican Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, approved the most staff travel -- 32 trips costing $36,364.
Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who has made at least 17 trips since 1996, has failed to meet the 30-day deadline for reporting free travel on every trip.
NBC-TV spent the single largest amount on congressional travel, shelling out an estimated $14,800 to fly Burton and his press secretary from Indianapolis back to Washington so Burton could appear on its Sunday morning talk show, Meet the Press.
Free travel is one of the last relatively unrestricted perks of serving and working in the U.S. House and Senate. Congress imposed tighter limits on gifts in 1995 but did not prohibit outside groups from paying for congressional travel.
"No one looks after it," said Kent Cooper, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "Whatever the member signs off on is approved."
Although the center has no position on whether lawmakers should accept free trips from groups with interests in federal legislation, Cooper said he sees a potential conflict of interest.
Cooper questioned whether members and their staffs, after taking a trip paid for by a company like Sprint, tune out the views of competing businesses in considering issues before Congress.
He wondered, too, about whether the views of small groups or businesses that can't afford plush weekends in resorts like historic Williamsburg are disregarded on issues affecting them.
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Indiana's chapter of Common Cause, said her nonpartisan group shares those concerns, particularly about trips sponsored by corporations, trade associations and other groups that lobby Congress.
"You certainly have to worry that these trips are spent not as an educational experience for the member of Congress, but rather as a lobbying opportunity for the group that is sponsoring the junket or the workshop or whatever it's called," Vaughn said.
"It is such a slippery slope. ... It is just best not to do it."
Lawmakers defend the practice, insisting they follow the rules set by the House and Senate ethics committees. They say the free travel never influences decisions made by them or their staffs.
But when questions are raised, they get defensive.
"The appearance is that somebody's buying influence and somebody's getting preferential treatment. I don't let that happen," Burton said in remarks characteristic of his colleagues.
"Nobody has ever, ever found me selling my vote or my influence for anything. Never. Never."
But when lawmakers or their aides take free trips, their hosts enjoy a level of access denied to most groups.
Access comes with trips
Consider the trip last August to Williamsburg sponsored by the Indiana State Medical Association and the Indiana Hospital Association. Those groups invited staffs from every Indiana congressional office to a three-day weekend in historic Williamsburg, several hours south of Washington.
Aides to Reps. Burton, Julia Carson, Ed Pease and Mark Souder accepted. The sponsors paid nearly $1,000 per person for transportation, food and lodging.
Jim Zieba, director of government relations for the state medical association, said the trip gave his organization the chance to educate some Hoosier congressional staff members -- some of whom aren't from Indiana -- about the status of health care in Indiana. The goal wasn't to lobby on federal legislation, he emphasized.
"Within that realm, I don't think (the trip) gave us a leg up on competing interests," Zieba said.
In explaining why his group chose scenic Williamsburg rather than a conference room in Washington, Zieba said meeting away from the Capitol meant the staffers would not be distracted by their normal day-to-day duties.
Even though the medical association's goal was to talk about health care issues in Indiana, Congress has a significant impact on all medical-related organizations. For example, the federal government influences health care pricing through rules set up for programs such as Medicare and Medicaid which, in turn, has an impact on physicians.
But the trip cost one congressional aide his job. Steve Thibodeau, press secretary to Carson, went without asking her permission. She fired him.
"We just had a disagreement on policy related to trips," said Carson, who doesn't allow her staff members to take free trips.
Carson did take one trip herself -- an eight-day jaunt to Israel that cost the sponsor, the American Israel Education Foundation, more than $5,000.
Indiana Statewide Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives had similar exclusive access to congressional staff members when the group sponsored a tour through rural Indiana last year.
The electric cooperatives group spent $963 per person to escort four aides from the offices of Sen. Coats and Reps. David McIntosh and Timothy J. Roemer on a traveling road show through rural Indiana. They toured schools, town halls, farms and power plants to give them a flavor for the issues facing the places the association serves.
Indiana Statewide Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives has concerns in Washington, too. It has a stake in how Congress will deregulate the electric utility industry, which will, in turn, determine how much control consumers will have in choosing a power company.
Having a lawmaker or a staff member visit in person makes a difference, "no doubt about it," said Jeff Quyle, director of government relations for the association. "It just makes so much more of an impact."
Groups outside of Indiana with national interests also paid for travel to conferences that explained how their industries operate.
Pitney Bowes, the multinational maker of postage meters, was one such company. It played host to three aides from the House Postal Service subcommittee and a Burton legislative assistant at its corporate headquarters in Connecticut in September and December. The cost of those trips was $1,941.
Pitney Bowes is affected every time Congress tinkers with laws governing the mail or other communication systems.
Telephone giant Sprint picked up the tab -- about $600 apiece -- for Burton's press secretary and another aide to attend a technology conference in Austin, Texas, last June.
Sprint, the third-largest long-distance telephone company in the nation, is affected every time Congress revises telecommunications regulations. It also competes with other companies to supply long-distance phone service to the federal government.
Six months after the Austin trip, Sprint shelled out $2,305 for two other Burton aides to attend a conference in Kansas City.
"If I thought there was any impropriety, I would say no," Burton said of the trips. "I don't think there's any impropriety. I don't think anybody's being unduly influenced."
Other advantages of trips
Sometimes the sponsor of a trip gains more than access.
A four-day jaunt that Coats and his wife, Marcia, took to Johannesburg last July helped raise the profile of the trip sponsor -- the Colorado-based conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family. The group, which has an office in Durban, South Africa, paid $7,416 for the Coats' air fare, food and lodging.
Coats has long supported Focus on the Family and was invited on the trip because of his interest in Africa, said Paul Hetrick, vice president of media relations for the group.
A meeting with South African president Nelson Mandela fell through, but the U.S. ambassador threw a party for the Focus on the Family group in honor of Coats.
"We invited the senator and he felt that it was something that was worth his time and attention, and we're glad he did," Hetrick said.
Coats also traveled to warmer climates last winter, taking three trips to Florida and one to Arizona between December 1996 and March 1997. Those trips came courtesy of the Invest to Compete Alliance, the Electronic Industries Association, History's Handful and the Chicago Tribune. His wife Marcia accompanied him on all but the Arizona trip.
Tim Goeglein, communications director for Coats, said the travel was not a series of winter vacations to the nation's warm spots.
"In each and every instance, he views this as the ability to broaden his own horizons," Goeglein said of Coats. "It's certainly true that groups who want congressmen to attend will often hold their meetings in an area that has a good climate, but I can say that in the overwhelming number of meetings, most of them are inside and all of them are categorically business related."
Coats' wife went along on most of the trips because, in the course of his regular duties, they often are separated, Goeglein said.
"In nearly 20 years in public life, he and Mrs. Coats have spent a lot of time apart. He increasingly has felt that gap, and where possible, thinks it's good that his wife can be with him," Goeglein said.
Lugar -- who has missed the 30-day filing deadline for every trip he has taken since the new ethics rules went into effect -- mixed foreign policy with political stumping on seven trips he took in 1996. He reported the seven trips he took in 1996 in mid-June 1997.
"I'm really surprised Sen. Lugar forgot to file," Common Cause's Vaughn said. "It should happen like clockwork."
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said the aide who filled out the reports for Lugar thought they were to be filed with the annual financial disclosure form, rather than within 30 days of each trip.
"He (the aide) is working now to file and get the things done," Fisher said.
The trips that Lugar did report show that much of his travel was foreign-policy related. He visited St. Petersburg, Russia, and St. Moritz, Switzerland. The Washington-based Aspen Institute think tank picked up the cost of both trips -- nearly $6,700.
Lugar also traveled to Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, to speak at Republican Party fund-raisers.
One of the most expensive trips had little to do with jaunts to exotic locales. NBC paid $7,400 each to fly Burton and his press secretary from Indianapolis to Washington to appear on Meet the Press.
"I told them I'd do that one by satellite and they wanted me there, and I said, 'Well, I can't get out there,'" Burton recalled. "And they said, 'We'll send a plane to get you.' I said, 'OK.'
"Meet the Press spent 7,400 bucks to have me fly out here and back, and I was on for 10 minutes."
Flying for free
A listing of all 116 trips taken by Indiana congressmen
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