Picking up the Tab
Courtesy Medill News Service
By Natasha T. Metzler
WASHINGTON - House and Senate rules allow anyone other than a lobbyist or a foreign agent to pay travel costs for a member of Congress if it relates to official duties. And every year corporations, think tanks, political advocacy groups, trade associations and other groups pay thousands to send members of the House and Senate on trips.
Between January 2000 and May 2004, organizations ranging from the International Association of Ice Cream Vendors to Yale University spent about $14.4 million to send lawmakers on more than 4,800 trips, according to an analysis of congressional trips by Medill News Service in partnership with American Public Media's Marketplace program and American RadioWorks.
Most of the trips were designed for the legislator to discuss policy trends with interest groups. But they also included speaking engagements, visiting plant sites, attending charitable events like hunting outings or even touring wineries. Whatever the purpose, the interest group usually foots the bill and sets the agenda.
The Aspen Institute, a global policy think tank, sponsored 488 trips in the last four and a half years, more than any other organization at a cost of more than $2.5 million.
Aspen conferences focus on a theme, ranging from U.S.-China relations to education reform. According to spokesman Bill Nell, the lawmakers meet with scholars, selected for their expertise on the subject, for discussions, banquets with speeches and "assigned seating at dinners to facilitate further discussions."
The Aspen Institute's goal for each conference is to "educate members of Congress and to give deeper understanding of subjects which are under discussion," Nell said via e-mail.
Rep. Thomas Allen, D-Maine, finds the programs "enormously helpful" because they give legislators, whom he described as "the ultimate generalists," the opportunity to delve into an issue.
"The best way to develop expertise in a particular field is to really set aside time and, you know, learn," Allen said.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who attended 17 Aspen Institute programs at a total of $105,000, values the knowledge gained, according to spokesman Nick Weber. Aspen programs in education have led reform initiatives championed by Lugar, and the U.S.-Russia relations programs helped inform his work on a program to deactivate or destroy former Soviet weapons, Weber said.
Nell said the institute selects the conference location based on how it will enhance the subject of the program. Past locations have included China, the Bahamas, the Czech Republic, Hawaii, Italy and Jamaica - locations often used by other sponsors. "If we discuss China, Latin America, or Russia, for example, it is much more meaningful to do it in the country we're studying, with people from that country," Nell said via e-mail.
Weber said that the quality of the information, not the exotic conference settings, is the main draw for Lugar.
Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight, said sponsored congressional travel isn't all bad, but it's a problem when those with a financial interest in the votes of Congress sponsor the trips.
"It doesn't necessarily mean that their issue isn't as serious, it's just the not everyone has this type of access to a member of Congress," she said.
The Ripon Educational Fund, an advocacy group with ties to the conservative Ripon Society, is the second largest congressional travel sponsor. Since 2000, the fund has spent $603,586 to send legislators on 59 trips.
Every year the Ripon Educational Fund organizes a Trans-Atlantic Conference for lawmakers and members of the private sector from Europe and the United States.
"The Ripon trips generally focus on international trade and improving America's competitiveness as well as improving health care access and affordability," said Brian Schubert, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn. "The trips also focus on international security concerns."
Johnson has gone on three Ripon Educational Fund trips with a total cost of $33,000.
At least some of the funds to underwrite such meetings are donated by corporations. According to a statement from Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., the 2000 Trans-Atlantic Conference, which took place in Rome, was partially paid for by Federal Express Corp., Microsoft Corp., Bell South Corp., Blue Cross-Blue Shield Association, Proctor and Gamble Co., Delta Air Lines Inc., and United Airlines.
Bill McCloskey, spokesman for Bell South, said his company also participated in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The company sent representatives to sit on panels along with other industry experts and lawmakers from Europe and the United States, he said.
"We find it an excellent opportunity to educate members of Congress on our issues and in turn be educated ourselves," McCloskey said.
Bell South still is deciding whether to be involved in the 2004 Trans-Atlantic Conference, according to McCloskey.
A representative of Blue Cross-Blue Shield said the association has a relationship with both the Ripon Educational Fund and the Ripon Society. Blue Cross-Blue Shield has participated in the Trans-Atlantic Conference by helping fund the conference and sending representatives more than once, the representative said.
Microsoft, which is also a member of the Ripon Society, joins trade organizations and think tanks "as a way to advance policy ideas and agendas that are important to the industry, said spokeswoman Ginny Terzano.
According to Terzano, participating in conferences allows for "thoughtful conversation about the issues on the horizon" and helps the company "engage on important policy issues."
Federal Express has been a regular contributor to the Ripon conferences and has sent company officials, said spokesman Kristin Krause.
Another way industry representatives gain access to legislators is through travel sponsored by trade associations.
Since January 2000, the Nuclear Energy Institute has sponsored 21 trips to Yucca Mountain in Nevada and to energy facilities in Europe. The trips cost the institute $272,877.
According to NEI spokeswoman Melanie Lyons, the foreign trips allow House and Senate members to see how differently plants in other countries operate, especially in terms of radioactive waste. Lyons said there are no reprocessing plants in the United States so traveling abroad allows lawmakers to learn about this method for dealing with waste.
Spokesman Steve Kerekes added that traveling abroad informs legislators about tariff issue on components of nuclear facilities, such as steam generators.
Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., participated in an NEI trip to France in 2001 as a part of his work for the Energy and Commerce Committee.
"The purpose of them is educational for some aspect of the committee work," Burr said. "You could make a tremendous case that looking at spent fuel reprocessing is very much a committee deal."
Lyons said that education is also the primary mission of the trips to Yucca Mountain.
"If we get some votes in our favor, that's great, but that is by no means the primary purpose of the trip," Lyons said. "You hear all this talk about Yucca Mountain, Yucca Mountain, but …you really need to see it with your own eyes."
Kerekes noted that sometimes representatives from companies belonging to the NEI also go on these trips. When a legislator travels, the NEI tries to see that an official of a member company from the same state as the lawmaker is also on the trip, he said.
Some companies, such as the CSX Corp., sponsor trips directly, rather than interacting with politicians through trade associations or advocacy groups.
Every year CSX invites eight to 12 legislators to speak on a panel at the company's annual client conference, called the CSX Challenge, according to spokeswoman Jane Covington. The event takes place at the posh Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which is owned by CSX.
The panel discussions allow members of Congress to offer insight on what is happing in Washington in terms of key policy issues for the railroad industry and to meet 75 to 100 CSX clients, Covington said.
The clients, not the lawmakers, are the center of attention at the CSX Challenge. The event was designed to get to know the customers' needs, according to Covington. But having members of Congress present is "a good benefit for customers as well as the policymakers," she said.
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