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Jet Setting Members of Congress May Lose Their Wings

As noted in this morning’s Headlines entry, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) are seeking to end corporate-subsidized jet travel for all members of Congress. Current rules allow members to accept payment from private sponsors for food, lodging and transportation costs, so long as the travel is deemed "educational" and related to official duties (i.e., speaking engagements, fact-finding, etc.). But what can be spun as a "fact-finding" tour (Mr. DeLay, I’m looking in your direction) would make even the most cynical policy wonk stutter.

It’s a relief to hear congressional leaders talk about banning the use of corporate jets for official travel, but what about banning privately-sponsored travel overall?

McCain’s proposal so far does not even touch upon private sponsors paying for the part of trips that aren’t official business – the hotels, restaurants and entertainment. Obama’s proposal, on the other hand, would prohibit a lobbyist or groups with ties to lobbyists from paying for junkets, while non-profit groups with no ties to lobbyists could still sponsor congressional trips. Thus, both proposals have loopholes that, at the very least, threaten their effectiveness.

No one is surprised that even these proposals are encountering resistance within the ranks. (Who would voluntarily give up their luxurious "fact-finding" vacation to St. Andrews golf course in Scotland?) What is surprising, at least to this cautiously optimistic author, is newly-elected Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner’s (R.-Ohio) fierce opposition to the plan.  Boehner ran against Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.) on the platform that he had fewer ties to special interests, and suggested that he would represent a new era in GOP ties to K Street. But in a report this morning by the Associated Press [via the Houston Chronicle], it was suggested that Boehner "defends privately funded travel as essential and suggests continuing to allow the trips if they meet House rules." No explanation was given as to why Boehner thinks these privately-funded trips are "essential." Perhaps he just needs the extra leg room. Any readers out there care to investigate Boehner’s ties to the charter jet industry?  Hey, it never hurts to check!

The reasoning behind corporate-sponsored travel has even veered into that wacky, "put a patriotic bumper-sticker on your SUV" territory: Rep. Zach Wamp (R.-Tenn.), suggests that continuing the "Air Congress" lifestyle is critical to fighting the war on terror. Said Wamp:

"We are now in a long-term war against terrorism. If we think that we are going to have cooperation from other freedom-loving countries in the world by isolating ourselves, we are kidding ourselves."

In the end, Sen. Obama puts it best: "Look, this is a subsidy, and this is a way of circumventing finance rules," he said.

We agree whole-heartedly, but even if Obama’s proposal is enacted, there still remain significant loopholes. As Public Citizen noted in a report on Richard Kessler and the Ripon Groups, lobbyists such as Kessler use loopholes in ethics rules to funnel lobbyist money to members in the form of subsidized travel.

McCain might end up banning the use of corporate jets for congressional junkets, but this has yet to be seen in his legislative proposals. Even under Obama’s more sweeping proposal, it is possible that a lobbying entity could establish a non-profit group that would pay for congressional travel, as long as the lobbyists involved did not control or direct its finances.

Here’s hoping that each party’s designated "captains of reform" are serious about shutting down the legalized lobbyist money-laundering that is Air Congress.

-Jess Kutch