Lawmakers get the airtime, but much of the real work on Capitol Hill gets done late at night, far from C-Span's cameras. It's done by high-ranking congressional staff. They are more than gatekeepers. They shape policy, write their bosses' letters, speeches, even write bills. Lobbyists in Washington court staff passionately.
"Your job, particularly a chief of staff to a member, the senior member of Congress, is like being a senior member your self," says Bill Paxon, a lobbyist and a former member of Congress. He says privately sponsored trips are essential. "Staff have a responsibility I believe ... to travel to attend conferences, ... to network with organizations that can then help build the pressure to pass legislative initiatives."
But Ken Boehm, chairman of the conservative National Legal Policy Center, says these trips are unseemly.
"Let's be candid," saus Boehm, "these folks are not paying for trips for staffers and members of Congress because they have extra money and they can't think of anything to do with it."
Staff travel has received little scrutiny until our team spent more than a year sorting through 25,000 disclosure forms.
We found special interests spending tens of millions of dollars buying face-time with congressional aides, with almost no oversight.
Ken Boehm says bankrolled trips provide a lifestyle many staffers can't afford.
"They will be treated like royalty. They will be wined and dined, and it is meant to influence the official behavior of ... Congress. That is exactly what the rules sought to prevent," says Boehm.
Take the case of Randy Delay - a lobbyist. Randy is the younger brother of Tom Delay, the former majority leader of the House of Representatives. On Capitol Hill, Randy was wired.
In 2002, he set out to influence a $300 billion highway bill, so he invited two key congressional staffers to a celebrated resort in Hot Springs Virginia - the Homestead.
One important staff member, Ruth Van Mark, was in the midst of coordinating the Senate's highway bill.
The other was Raga Elim, a top House Transportation Committee lawyer.
The staffers spent the weekend with Randy Delay's client - a group of firms seeking $1.6 billion in federal money to build a privately operated toll road in western Virginia.
The trip was blatantly against congressional ethics rules. Sponsored travel is allowed for official business, but lobbyists are not allowed to pick up the tab.
Randy Delay did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"I think Congress has proven its total inability to monitor itself," says Melanie Sloan. She runs the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group. "There is absolutely no consequence for violating the rules."
Ruth Van Mark reported on her official disclosure form that Delay's firm paid for her trip. The Senate Ethics Committee did nothing. Raga Elim left the sponsor blank. Both staffers told Marketplace that Delay's firm paid for their trips.
Documents show members of Congress and their staff reported more than 90 other trips sponsored by lobbyists, and in no case did the House or Senate Ethics Committee take public action.
"One of the problems I see with the new lobbying reform bill is they are talking about having new rules, but if you don't enforce the rules you have got, who cares what the rules are?"
Last fall, the highway project Delay was pushing received $142 million in federal funding. More than a year earlier, Taxpayers for Common Sense dubbed the project one of the most wasteful in the nation.