It's Time For The Public To Fund Congressional Travel

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Thursday, April 28, 2005
Seven years ago, approaching the end of my career in the U.S. House, I introduced a bill to tighten the rules governing travel by members of Congress. The idea did not meet with much enthusiasm– I managed to convince only a few of my colleagues to sign on as co-sponsors. Other than a few passing jokes about tilting at windmills, everyone else ignored it. 

Today, with Congress enmeshed in the ruckus over who paid for various trips by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and others, I find myself hoping that some current member will pick up that baton and run with it. In fact, I hope he or she will go a step further than I did, and move to ban all private funding for congressional travel. It is time– indeed, long overdue– to say that when a member of Congress needs to travel on official business, the government should pay for it and the specifics of the trip should be disclosed in detail. I’d like to think that in the current climate, the notion might get a respectful hearing, not just a few private chuckles. 

We should get one thing straight: Trips by lawmakers, both within this country and abroad, are a good thing. I want legislators to be as well-informed as they can be when they go about making policy, and there’s no substitute for the insights you gain when you see a situation for yourself. Travel opens your eyes, and if you do it right, taking care to talk to people well outside the orbit of officialdom, it is invaluable for any member of Congress who believes in the independence and vitality of the institution. The question, in other words, is not whether members of Congress should travel, it’s who pays and who controls the agenda. 

As you no doubt know if you’ve been following the DeLay saga, House rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for a House member’s trip. But as you also no doubt know, there are enough loopholes in those rules to undermine their intent. As an article in The Wall Street Journal put it not long ago, “A fast-growing trend in the business of influencing government is corporate-funded trips, carrying lawmakers, their staffs and often their spouses to attend industry seminars, tour plants and speak at annual meetings. Because the trips are paid for by corporations and trade associations--and not the hired-guns who lobby for them--such trips are permitted under House and Senate rules.” The result is that on these trips private interests can get unfettered access to members of Congress for a period of days. Lawmakers may argue that they learn important things as they’re sitting in meetings– or by the pool, or in a golf cart– and no doubt they do. But appearances matter, and the public needs to have confidence that wealthy insiders aren’t getting a leg up by showering legislators with favors. If a congressman’s education is truly in the public’s best interest, then he should have no trouble shedding the appearance of coziness with well-heeled interests and asking the public to underwrite the trip. 

I’ll admit that the case gets a bit more complicated when a trip is bankrolled by a think tank or public-policy institute. I went on a few of those myself. The conversations were led by knowledgeable experts, and I came away much better informed. But I also came away knowing that, even if the trip’s sponsor wasn’t putting on a hard sell the way a corporate sponsor might, it still had an interest in “educating” me– encouraging engagement with another country, for instance, or closer attention to one of its domestic priorities. If a trip is worth taking in order to improve legislation or to strengthen congressional oversight, we should all underwrite it. If it’s not, there’s no reason to go. 

This is not to say that once the federal government funds all congressional travel, our problems will end. The executive branch coordinates many of the trips, and it has its own agenda. That’s why it’s crucial for legislators to keep control of the schedule when they travel abroad, to visit not just a variety of public officials but also meet with newspaper editors and academics and even Peace Corps volunteers, so that they can get as unfettered a view as possible of the situation on the ground. Members of Congress will always be responsible for making sure that taxpayers get the most from a trip. 

And that’s really what this is about, isn’t it? The world, both here and abroad, is a complicated place. The truth is, I would question a member of Congress who refused to get out and poke around; we’re better off as a country when our lawmakers expose themselves to divergent opinions and all those shades of gray. But we also need to be sure that they’re doing it to benefit us, not just a handful of private interests. It’s time to stop the games-playing with congressional rules, and to ban outright the private sponsorship of congressional travel. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)