Rules of the Road

On Thursday, July 6, 2000, Tom Bliley, a Republican Congressman from Richmond, Virginia, boarded the Concorde with his wife. The supersonic jet touched down in London less than four hours later. The Blileys' tickets cost nearly $24,000.

The couple spent four nights at the Savoy, a legendary 19th century luxury hotel with breathtaking views of the River Thames.

The Blileys' suite cost more than $1,000 a night.

That weekend, they attended the Wimbledon finals. Their tickets cost nearly $3,000.

The total bill for Bliley's four-day trip to England: over $31,000. But Congressman Bliley didn't pay a dime.

Brown and Williamson Tobacco, the maker of Lucky Strikes, picked up the whole tab.

During a four-and-a-half month investigation, Marketplace, American RadioWorks, and a team of graduate students from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism cataloged every privately sponsored trip taken by members of the House and Senate since the year 2000.

What we found was a system where the rules that govern are lax, often ignored, and influence can be bought one trip at a time.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

Under rules enacted in 1995, members of Congress are banned from accepting any gift worth more than $50.

But lawmakers can accept gifts of travel worth tens of thousands of dollars. And when congresspeople hit the road, many ethics restrictions don't apply.

House and Senate rules allow members to accept work-related travel from private companies, universities and other outside groups as long as legislators limit what they take to what the rules call "reasonable and necessary expenses."

Entertainment falls outside that line.

These are not games from the industry standpoint. This is very serious business. They only do it because they think they are going to get a payback for it.

Larry Nobel is Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan government watchdog.

"I think we would all love to go to Europe and have somebody else pay for it," says Nobel, "and that is what is so insidious about this. ... These members of Congress may be wonderful people, but they are not being taken on these trips just out of good will."

When Tom Bliley flew to London for the Wimbledon finals, he was the chairman of the House Commerce Committee. and known around Washington as the Congressman from Philip Morris. Today he is a tobacco lobbyist.

Bliley declined our invitation for a taped interview, but he told us he disclosed this trip, in full. In accordance with the rules, he filled out the requisite travel disclosure form. He reported who paid for the trip, where he went, and what it cost. He even wrote down that he accepted a gift that violated House rules - the $3,000 Wimbledon tickets. But Bliley says no one from the House ethics committee has ever called him to say he broke some of the rules.

"The ethics committee is a complete failure," says Nobel, "and this just underscores it. What you have here are violations that are being reported. Flags are being raised on the face of the reports and the ethics committee is doing nothing about it."

Rules of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct prevent members from discussing specific cases, but Chairman Joel Hefley (R-CO) and ranking minority member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) sent a written statement to Marketplace. It says staffers review every travel disclosure. When a violations are found, or brought to their attention, the committee will take action, including asking for the repayment of travel expenses that were improperly accepted.

The House of Representatives keeps these records underground.

Down several flights of stairs is a large, windowless basement office. Stacked along a wall are 60 fat, three-ring binders.

They are filled with thousand of paper records describing millions of dollars in freebies.

To answer even simple questions about congressional travel, like who takes the most free trips or what group spends the most cash, you have to comb through every binder in the room.

We did.

Then we searched though computer files to catalog the Senate's trips too.

We found more than 4,800 trips totaling more than $14.4 million - all paid for by private groups.

Most of these trips aren't as extravagant as Tom Bliley's Wimbledon weekend and most people follow the rules. Many trips are supposed to be educational and many were.

The largest single sponsor of congressional travel is the Aspen Institute.

"I've never had a single member who went out and played tennis or something, and if I did, I would never invite them back," says Dick Clark, former senator and head of the Aspen Institute's congressional program, which brings legislators together with experts on pressing public policy issues. "The Congress gets a lot of bad press. But when I see these people around the table ... with the best scholars in the world, trying to find answers to the problems of terrorism or the war in Iraq ... I'm really very proud of them."

"Travel can be immensely beneficial if it is properly done," says former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Hamilton was the top Democrat on the 9/11 Commission. He's known as a straight-shooter. When he was chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee, he took fellow members to task for not traveling enough. But he also criticized colleagues for taking trips that raised more questions than they answered.

"I ... know members who go to the fanciest hotels and eat at the fanciest restaurants and do very little work," says Hamilton.

During our investigation of congressional travel, we uncovered bi-partisan abuses.

We found gifts in the form of golf trips, spas, flights on private jets, and poolside drinks in Las Vegas. We uncovered a Swedish massage billed to the National Association of Broadcasters.

We found several cases where lobbyists ignored rules banning them from paying for travel.

Members of Congress took 200 trips worth more than $400,000, and didn't say where they were going.

"It discourages me," says Charles Teifer, former general counsel of the House and a congressional ethics expert. "The American system is not that powerful interests should battle it out with gifts. It sounds like the type of corruption tolerated in third world areas. ... Interest groups compete with each other. Trips like this are ways of using money rather than arguments to tilt the policy."

And the money adds up.

On a three-day, $5,500 trip to Boca Raton Florida, Illinois Republican Congressman Philip Crane broke the rules by allowing the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile exchange to pay $300 in golf fees.

While on an $8,000 trip, one to the Caribbean island of Antigua, Crane allowed a different host to pay $90 for his wife's spa treatment.

In four-and-a-half years, the Cranes accepted $109,000 in free trips paid for by outside interests. A pro free-trade group footed the bill for his trip to Antigua.

Crane sits on the Ways and Means Committee, and as chair of its subcommittee on trade, is one of the most powerful policy makers in the country. He can dictate the trade agenda

"If he can receive $100,000 in trips," says Teifer, "unless it is rigorously disclosed and rigorously meets the requirements, the perception is our trade policy is up for sale."

Crane declined an interview request, but members of his staff said the ethics committee never contacted his office about any of these trips.

"It really leads to a system where nobody takes it seriously anymore," says Nobel. "The system is broken. They'll file reports if they want to. They will file what they want to. And they will take what they want to. It is a real scandal."

"It just leads to suspicion," says Hamilton. "It erodes confidence in the Congress, and that is a serious thing."

Before Lee Hamilton retired from Congress in 1998, he proposed tighter rules for privately sponsored trips. His bill never made it to the floor of the House for a vote.

Go back to Power Trips

©2018 American Public Media