Congress Must Go Cold Turkey from Free Travel

The Jack Abramoff political corruption scandal is once again causing Congress to re-examine the issue of privately financed Congressional travel.

The House of Representatives re-wrote the rules regarding such trips 16 years ago seeking to put some limits on but not totally eliminate these type trips.

This effort at reform simply didn’t work. Members still managed to take golf vacations to Scotland and weekend jaunts to domestic resorts with trade associations or foundations set up by special interests picking up the tab.

It’s high time Congress went cold turkey...totally eliminate privately financed foreign and domestic travel for members of Congress. If a member wants to attend a conference at some exotic location and give a speech in between snorkeling and golf, the trip should either be paid for personally by the member or paid out of the member’s official fixed government expense account (called the MRA: Member’s Representational Account).

This would not in any way limit members from going on official Congressional Delegations (CODELS) to key parts of the world. CODELS are paid for by Congress, not from a member’s personal government expense account, and often serve very vital functions. I recall traveling on CODELS to Berlin right after the Berlin Wall fell; to Iraq a year after the war started; and to Bosnia to visit members of the Texas National Guard assigned as peacekeepers. I learned a great deal from each of these trips, and had no trouble justifying the fact that these trips were paid for by the federal government.

The problem with going cold turkey on all privately financed trips is that some very worthwhile ventures will be eliminated along with the true boondoggles: no more trips to Israel to learn about the Middle East peace process paid for by a foundation established by members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee; no more trips to Cancun to study important issues of the day, such as Islamic culture, financed by the highly respected Aspen Institute; no more trips to Japan to discuss trade, financed by the Japan Society of New York.

But once you start writing special rules to permit some privately financed trips sponsored by respected, bi-partisan groups, where members of Congress actually spend a great deal of their time in work sessions, where do you draw the line? That’s what Congress grappled with a number of years ago, and we totally left the barn door open for all the horses to leave.

Some people have suggested more frequent and more detailed financial disclosure statements as the answer to this question. However, greater financial disclosure will not eliminate public skepticism about elected officials having their airfare, hotel rooms and meals paid for by someone who is advocating a particular point of view on legislation.

If a member of Congress feels that it is vital that he or she accept the offer of a foundation to visit a foreign country-- and there is no official CODEL planned for that part of the world any time soon-- then the member should pay for the cost of the trip out of his MRA. Since all official overhead for that particular member comes out of his MRA, then it would just mean that the member would send one less newsletter back to his constituents or cut down on the number of trips back to his district in order to pay for the cost of this particular foreign trip.

The same principle could apply if a member wants to fly to Miami Beach or to Las Vegas to address the National Association of Realtors or the National Beer Wholesalers Association…just charge it to his MRA and cut out a newsletter.

This may seem like a simplistic approach to a complicated problem. However, Congress faces a real crisis--a crisis in public confidence. The institution has been disgraced by the acts of some members and strong medicine is required.

If Congress decides simply to play at the margins, to give the appearance of reform without actually changing a culture that has come to accept favors from people with an agenda, then the institution will suffer irreparable harm.

Dramatic action is called for.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel, and is a scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

Respond to the Writer