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Mr. Smith goes to Paris… and Italy, and Hawaii, and…

While on tour last year, popular HBO comedian Bill Mahrer remarked on the revelations of lavish congressional junkets emerging at the time, many of them connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  Mahrer noted that if someone took him to Las Vegas, and paid for the travel, food and booze and a nice room, he would be awfully grateful to that person. He might even be inclined to do them a favor in return.

Just how many legislative favors, I have to wonder, did members of Congress do in return for the 23,000 trips that were given to them by corporations and other private interests between January 2000 and June 2005 – trips worth nearly $50 million, and which included corporate jet rides, $500-a-night hotels, and exotic destinations including Paris, Hawaii, Italy, and, of course, that golf course in Scotland?

These numbers were discussed in The Washington Post’s coverage of the new Center for Public Integrity study on Congressional travel (see Corruption News Roundup, below). House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised in the wake of Abramoff’s guilty plea to ban such privately funded travel, but those promises turned to dust, and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) won election as House majority leader on the specific promise not to ban such travel. (Not surprisingly, his office was one of the biggest recipients of the privately-funded trips.)

Kevin Madden, Boehner’s spokesperson, was quoted in the article as saying that such travel "’leads to greater understanding of the issues’ at no cost to taxpayers." While an objective observer might reasonably ask how discussing Social Security at a Colorado ski resort leads to "greater understanding" than discussing it in a Washington office, the assertion that these junkets come at "no cost to taxpayers" is just flat-out wrong.

It is wrong because these freebies that members of Congress, their families and staff receive from corporate America are part of a system of legalized bribery, a system that persuades members to approve multi-billion dollar subsidies for the corporations that pay for the trips, or to pass monstrous corporate giveaways such as the $500 billion-plus Medicare prescription drug bill – all of which cost the taxpayers dearly.

No reform of Congress will be complete until such trips are banned or severely restricted.

In the meantime, though, I certainly understand the desire to go to Paris or Hawaii. Regular Americans like to go to beautiful and exotic places like that too, and we have a word for such trips: vacation. Members of Congress might want to look that one up.

-Gordon Clark