Ethics rules alter travel by Congress

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress have cut by nearly 60% the number of trips they take at the expense of special-interest groups since voting to restrict such travel, according to a USA TODAY review of travel records compiled by CQ MoneyLine.

A few non-profit groups, however, continue to jet lawmakers to far-flung places such as Paris and Rome, according to the examination of data collected by non-partisan CQ MoneyLine.

Last year, for instance, six lawmakers traveled to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, courtesy of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's foundation. AIPAC is a pro-Israel force and spent $2.5 million to lobby Congress last year.

Ethics rules approved in 2007 bar lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights at the expense of corporations, unions and others that employ lobbyists. But Congress imposed fewer limits on travel paid for by non-profits, such as AIPAC's American Israel Education Foundation.

Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen said the sharp reduction in trips shows "we've made some great gains in terms of regulating" privately funded travel. Holman was critical, however, of what he called "loopholes" that allow non-profits with ties to lobbying groups to continue underwriting longer trips. The non-profits "can have enormous influence," he said.

Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the "primary aim" of the restrictions was to cut ties between lawmakers and lobbyists, "not to eliminate reasonable educational opportunities for all members of Congress and staff."

Overall, federal lawmakers took 903 trips, both foreign and domestic, totaling $3.4 million in 2007-08. That's down from 2,110 trips with a total value of $5.2 million in 2005-06.

The decline has continued. So far, lawmakers have reported 157 trips between January and May this year. In 2006, the year before the restrictions went into place, lawmakers took 419 trips by the end of May.

The drop comes as the House ethics committee has launched an investigation into privately funded Caribbean trips by several lawmakers. A conservative group, the National Legal and Policy Center, has argued the travel was underwritten by companies that employ lobbyists.

Overall, Aspen — a non-profit that holds conferences and seminars to address major issues — funded the most travel in 2007-08, spending $1.2 million to send lawmakers on 126 trips. AIPAC's foundation was the second biggest spender with 47 trips, totaling $748,502. Together, the two groups accounted for more than half the spending on private travel, and spent more on congressional travel during 2007-08 than they had during the previous two years, according to MoneyLine.

Darren Mackoff, a spokesman for the AIPAC foundation, said the trips are educational and allow lawmakers "to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, journalists, academics, political leaders." The foundation does not disclose its donors.

Dick Clark, who runs Aspen's program, said it is funded by independent foundations, such as the Ford Foundation. Aspen does not lobby Congress.