Travelin' Blues

The Republican two-step on ethics reform has proven an amusing spectacle this season. First come panicked promises of reform from GOP congressional leaders; then come rank-and-file pushback and a hasty public retreat. A typical case presented itself when Speaker Dennis Hastert and House Rules Committee baron David Dreier proposed a blanket ban on all privately funded congressional travel. Mere days later, newly elected House Majority Leader John Boehner took the occasion of a February Meet the Press appearance to tell Tim Russert, “I have my doubts about that.”

Boehner's insouciance reflects the majority view of his rank and file. Proponents of such a ban, meanwhile, count among their ranks not only the spooked House speaker, but also virtually every major watchdog group, high-profile outside experts like ex-congressman and 9-11 Commission co-chair Lee Hamilton, and the Senate's leading goo-goo gadfly, Russ Feingold, who scolded his colleagues at a February hearing, “If members of Congress can't justify spending taxpayer money to do a fact-finding trip, they shouldn't go. And neither should their staff.”

Advocates of a ban offer a compelling argument and boast solid reform credentials. Nevertheless, the travel issue stands as perhaps the single stopped-clock-is-right-twice instance in the current ethics reform debate: Boehner and the skeptics are correct in spite of themselves. The costs of a blanket private travel ban would outweigh the benefits of the very limited dent in corruption such a reform might offer. Indeed, the climate provoked by the Jack Abramoff scandals has already served to curb congressional travel in ways that ill serve the public interest and the cause of sound policymaking.

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It would be foolish to deny that much privately funded congressional travel is tainted by corporate influence-peddling. Trade associations proliferate among the private funders compiled and ranked by the watchdog outfit PoliticalMoneyLine, as do shell nonprofit policy groups that operate more as conduits for lobbyist money and influence than serious independent research outfits.

But progressives ought to consider what else would get chucked out along with the boondoggles. The legislative branch, after all, affects policy across an enormously wide span of issues, and travel plays a role in more areas than most recognize.

Consider a low-profile casualty of the recent controversy surrounding private travel. The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a 30-year-old nonprofit, includes child marriage as one area of focus. That practice, common in parts of Africa and South Asia, greatly circumscribes girls' life prospects and endangers their health. In addition to increased exposure to AIDS and abuse, “girls have sex long before they're physically ready to,” explains Leslie Calman, ICRW's vice president of external relations, “which means they have pregnancies and bear children before their bodies are fully ready.”

The results include high maternal and infant mortality rates as well as the prevalence of a horrific condition called obstetric fistula -- a hole between the bladder, vagina, and sometimes rectum that leaks fluid. The condition typically leads to abandonment and ostracism.

Several months ago, ICRW decided to organize a fact-finding trip to Ethiopia -- where 50 percent of girls are married by the age of 18 -- to educate Hill staffers about child marriage. The itinerary included a visit to a fistula clinic in Addis Ababa and another in the northern countryside, tours of local projects that provide girls with alternatives to child marriage and prostitution, and meetings with USAID staffers and Ethiopian officials. The hope is that this kind of educational trip might lead to the inclusion of language in foreign operations bills directing USAID to work on this problem and perhaps allocating funds for the purpose.

The trip's organizers initially attracted interest and commitments from staffers in both parties and both chambers of Congress -- then, one by one, the aides began backing off. “Before Abramoff happened,” says Calman, “four staffers had already signed on, and there were a number of others who had expressed interest. Then we started getting sad phone calls from people saying their bosses had instructed them that now is not a good time to take any trips.” The planned roster of six to eight Hill aides shrunk to one. (At the last minute, ICRW signed up a second staffer who had been planning on attending a similar trip that was cancelled.) ICRW went forward with the trip in February -- with just the two staffers, one from each party -- but the feeling lingers that the recent crackdown is taking an unwarranted toll.

The difference between a lavish Abramoffian boondoggle and a trip like ICRW's is not especially difficult to divine. Hill staffers in hock to the well-heeled fistula lobby could have hoped to enjoy slightly more luxurious trappings on this particular junket. “One day we just ate bananas and bread, because that's all that we could get on the road,” recalls one participant in the Ethiopia trip.

But ICRW's experience is hardly unique. The current climate has prompted Americans for the UN Population Fund to put a planned trip to Nicaragua on hold, and Population Action International (PAI) to cancel a February visit to Tanzania to assess U.S.-funded family planning programs. PAI released a statement in late January urging Congress to “find a sensible, measured alternative to a proposed unilateral ban on all privately funded congressional travel.”

But what kind of alternative reforms are possible? Regular, codified distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate private sponsors of travel are difficult to draw, and the educational value of a given trip is always a matter of interpretation.

Significantly tougher pre-travel certification requirements, which barely exist now, could help to draw such lines. “There should be a pre-travel clearance system that's rigorous and transparent and enforced,” says James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. This would require both sponsors and congressional staff to submit details about the travel and to apply for permission before a panel. Thurber sees the appeal of granting responsibility for travel clearance to a bipartisan entity such as a proposed independent Office of Public Integrity, which would monitor congressional ethics. Enforcement of existing travel rules requires significant strengthening, and an Office of Public Integrity could help do that as well.

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In early March, Senate Republicans (with some Democratic support) killed a proposal for just such an office. Of course, the majority party's obvious lack of interest in boosting enforcement and oversight of travel rules could theoretically bolster the case for eschewing rational reforms in favor of a simplistic blanket ban on private travel. But limiting congressional travel solely to the existing public system for funding trips would come at serious costs, and the prospects for improving that system even in the wake of a ban on private sponsorship are dim.

For one thing, official government-funded congressional travel delegations (CODELS) tend to exclude junior members, and often are organized by the majority in a partisan fashion. Moreover, public funds for travel are not available for staffers in members' personal offices -- only committees have travel budgets, and that money underwrites travel only by committee staff. “There are 535 legislative assistants on Capitol Hill who are responsible for foreign affairs issues,” explains Rob Gustafson, a lobbyist who helped organize the ICRW trip. “If you couldn't take privately funded travel, currently none of them would have money to travel to see the actual programs that they talk about.”

Theoretically, lawmakers could address these problems through more thoroughgoing reforms of the process for public funding. And indeed, a truly ideal system would be one in which public funds were regularly and fully available for staff and members to engage in educational travel -- and in which such publicly funded travel was in fact encouraged. That would be ideal not only because travel is a valuable part of lawmakers' jobs, but also for the same reason that significantly boosting pay for staffers and members of Congress should be a pillar of progressive ethics reform: Making public service remunerative and enjoyable would help to slow the revolving-door exodus of talented personnel and help prevent congressional staff from becoming supplicants to special interests that offer perks and services. Unfortunately, as the past decade's budget squeeze on congressional offices and the perennially vexed politics of congressional pay increases both illustrate, the ideal system is utopian.

The public-interest costs of banning private sponsorship of travel would be serious indeed. A reformed system, in which private travel were legal but subject to a rigorously enforced clearance and ethics process, provides the best real-world solution. The certainty of some continued corruption and dubious junkets notwithstanding, the public will be well served to keep letting lawmakers fly the friendly skies.