From May 25 to 31, four House lawmakers journeyed to Oslo and scenic Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago of pristine arctic wilderness studded with mountains and glaciers, at the expense of sponsors including the nonprofit International Management and Development Institute. Reps. Rick Boucher of Virginia and his wife, Henry Johnson of Georgia and an aide, Mark Souder of Indiana and a son, and Deborah Pryce of Ohio and a sister all took the trip. Topics for the weeklong U.S.-Norwegian Congressional Roundtable included climate change and energy. The tab was $71,358. Johnson, in a statement to U.S. News, called global warming a pre-eminent issue and noted that he saw widespread thawing "occurring much more rapidly than a decade ago." Pryce, who is leaving Congress after this term, had no comment on the trip. "You've seen the disclosure statement? That kind of speaks for itself," says Rob Nichols, her spokesman.
Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland flew to Athens for three nights for ceremonies honoring his father, former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, and met with Greek officials. The Constantinos Karamanlis Institute for Democracy paid costs of $7,811 for Representative Sarbanes, who spent time with relatives in Greece at his own expense. He noted in a statement to U.S. News that he is Greek-American and belongs to the congressional Hellenic Caucus and added: "Though it packed a lot into a few days, this was a unique opportunity to meet with a range of high-level officials to gain their perspective and insights."
Tougher rules now govern travel after an uproar over disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who ferried a few lawmakers to golf trips at the famed St Andrews Links in Scotland several years ago. Chief among the changes is that lobbyists, or firms that employ them, can't plan anything but the shortest trips. The Senate makes an exception for charities with lobbyists, as does the House for colleges and universities that retain them. Amid the new rules, an irony has emerged. While more sunlight streams into travel paid for by outsiders, like Aspen, there is comparatively less divulged when taxpayers foot the bill.
Two areas generally shielded are the cost of using military planes and that of bringing lawmakers' spouses on military flights. At the Department of Defense, spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maka was asked for details on the "codels" (congressional delegation travel) for the Memorial Day period, including the Italy and Slovenia trip. He refused. "As a matter of practice, the department does not release the specifics of congressional delegation travel," he says.
At Public Citizen, a watchdog group, Craig Holman applauds the tighter restrictions on travel that took effect in 2007, especially the curbs on the influence of lobbyists. But he laments the limited disclosure made when lawmakers travel on the public dime. "A lot of these trips are educational," he says, but "we don't have a clue what goes on during those trips and how much (actually) is being spent." How many went abroad in late May is unclear, as reports still are trickling in, though current reports show that Democrats took nearly two thirds of the known trips.
The Aspen Congressional Program vastly outpaced other outside groups in footing the bill for congressional travel, spending nearly $5 million since 2000, according to figures compiled by Congressional Quarterly's MoneyLine. Lawmakers praise Aspen, but some acknowledge concern over how outsiders view lavish freebies. "Do I worry about perception? Sure," says one lawmaker who has taken part in Aspen conferences and spoke anonymously to be candid. "There's no question there've been boondoggles in the past...embarrassing abuses of congressional privilege." He once floated the idea that Aspen convene a congressional conference in a national park lodge rather than at a lavish foreign destination but was shot down. One reason is that the Senate rules limit such domestic trips to three days and foreign trips to seven days, not including travel. Another reason is Aspen's first two conferences on Maryland's Eastern Shore "were a disaster," Aspen's Clark says. "People came late, canceled, went back early, were on the phone all the time."
Updated on 7/25/08