Last fall, Marketplace reported that since 2000, members of Congress took 4,800 privately paid trips worth more than $14 million. Since then, Congressional investigations and news stories have revealed that lawmakers may have violated the travel rules. And more investigations of high-powered senators and representatives loom on the horizon. We thought it would be a good idea to see if any of this is changing how Congress travels these days.

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Fewer members of Congress seem to have the travel bug this year. Travel records from July 2004 through June 2005 show the number of privately paid trips has dropped by 20 percent compared to the previous year.

Ken Gross
courtesy The Hill

"The whole atmosphere on the Hill with the pending investigation involving Congressman Delay and others has chilled a lot of this activity," says Ken Gross, a Washington D.C. lawyer and ethics expert.

Much of that chill is also due to recent news stories that revealed representatives were not properly reporting their trips. Gross says members of the House and Senate have become much more careful about how they document their travel, and where they go.

"More attention is being paid to the precise requirements for disclosure, the precise requirements for who may pay for the trip and the timing of the payments for the trip," says Gross. "The quantity and the quality of the trips have gone down. ... Some of the trips are a little less exotic then maybe some that have occurred in the past."

But even if the trip isn't to a tropical paradise, the bills can add up fast. The average cost per trip is around $3,000 each, about the same as last year. Some cost much more. In March of this year, the Chamber of Commerce of Hidalgo, Texas flew its senator, John Cornyn, to attend a benefit dinner and receive its annual Border Texan of the Year award. The group says it raised more than $20,000 for student college tuitions. It cost $22,000 to fly Senator Cornyn to town.

Congressman Gene Green (D-TX)
AFP/Getty Images/Staff

Another Texas lawmaker, House Democrat Gene Green, ran up the second biggest travel tab since 2000, but he's had a change of heart about who he will let pay for his trips. He says he'll no longer accept travel from groups controlled by lobbyists.

"After looking at the number of trips, that bothers me," says Green. "And I think as a member of the ethics committee, but also as a member of Congress, we need to make sure there's a wall there … a firewall, so to speak, so you don't have that undue influence."

But other lawmakers continue to take questionable trips. In April, Louisiana Democrat Charlie Melancon reported taking a $13,000 trip to a three-day policy seminar in California's Napa Valley. While in wine country, along with three other lawmakers, Melancon and his wife stayed in a resort hotel and were treated to more than $900 in meals over the three day period, all paid for by a non-profit group called America's Trust. USA Today reported that all 12 of the non profit's board members were lobbyists. Ethics lawyer Ken Gross welcomes calls for greater scrutiny of Congressional trips.

"The net effect over some period of time," says Gross, "will be better disclosure, more sensitivity to the rules and a sense that … members do need to have some benefit in connection with their duties as an office holder."

Earlier this month, the House Ethics Committee reached an agreement to hire new staff to police how Congress hits the road. They should be in place by the fall.

How much do your representatives travel? Who accepts the most money in trips? How do the parties compare? Find out at Power Trips: The Data.

Power Trips: Chilled Travel was produced for American Public Media's Marketplace and Marketplace Morning Report by American RadioWorks in conjunction with Political Money Line.

Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Power Trips: Chilled Travel was produced by William Kistner and edited by Nate Dimeo. Additional reporting by Steve Henn, research assistance from Alex McRae. For American RadioWorks, the editor is Chris Farrell, senior producer is Sasha Aslanian, project manager is Misha Quill, Web producer is Ochen Kaylan. The executive editor is Stephen Smith, and the executive producer is Bill Buzenberg. For Marketplace, senior producer is Celeste Wesson and executive producer is J. J. Yore.

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