Ethics Fix Lets Capitol Flyers Regain Their Wings

By Anna Schecter

May 9, 2007 1:21pm

For nearly 17 years, Collin Peterson flew himself to work in his own airplane. But when the Democrats in Washington tried to reform lobbying practices earlier this year, they also grounded Peterson. The new rules barred Peterson, a longtime Democratic U.S. congressman from Minnesota, from flying on private, noncommercial aircraft.  The measure was supposed to keep lawmakers from taking cozy trips on corporate jets.  But it also forced Peterson to park his single-engine, four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza, which he used to travel to Washington and get around his rural district. "It was a total screw-up," said Peterson, who is one of 10 U.S. lawmakers licensed to fly. (One air-friendly lawmaker found a loophole in the law — Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., is allowed to fly a rented helicopter to hop around his district.) Other congressional pilots include Robin Hayes, R-N.C., who flies a Beechcraft like Peterson, Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, who flies a single-engine four-seat Piper Comanche, and Sam Graves, R-Mo., who flies a red 1967 two-seat Cherokee.  Click Here for Full Blotter Coverage. The ethics package’s language states that members "may not use personal funds, official funds, or campaign funds for a flight on a non-government airplane that is not licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate for compensation or hire." Peterson said he was ready to propose a bill to make it illegal for any member of Congress to drive his or her car for any purpose to demonstrate the limitations of the rule.  He stopped short of introducing it after he learned Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, agreed to fix the law last week. "It’s the same thing if you have your own car, and you’re going to buy your own gas, but because you’re in Congress, you can’t drive it," Peterson said. "I couldn’t even buy my own gas and fly and see my granddaughter because it was in violation of the ethics laws." The ethics committee says its intent was to prevent a repeat of ex-Majority Leader Tom Delay’s, R-Texas, trip on a tobacco company’s private jet. "We meant to prevent corporations from buying hours of private access to politicians, not to prevent members of Congress from flying in their own airplanes," said John Santore, spokesman for House Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y.  Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., is another congressional pilot who was relieved the resolution passed. His spokesman said he will save hours flying his plane to meetings instead of driving, now that the law is changed. Republican Rep. Darrel Issa’s office said the California congressman has his pilot’s license but does use a plane to get to events for his job.  He had urged Pelosi since January to fix the glitch so he could fly for recreation without violating the ethics rules, according to his spokesman.  The resolution, sponsored by Peterson, passed by unanimous consent just before midnight last Wednesday and was first reported by Roll Call. Boehner’s office said he reluctantly agreed to allow the resolution to pass with unanimous consent, which facilitated a quick solution to the snafu.  According to his staff, he had wanted to use the mistake as leverage to make sweeping amendments to the ethics bill.

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