WASHINGTON – House Republicans, seeking to recover their standing with voters in the wake of a lobbying scandal, are considering a total ban on privately funded congressional trips, the lawmaker leading the reform effort said Wednesday.
Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said GOP leaders were "seriously considering" the need to eliminate all privately financed travel. "That would be a very strong statement. We want to be bold," said Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., asked Dreier to come up with an overhaul of lobbying ethics rules after lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to felony charges involving his influence-peddling activities in Washington. Abramoff's clients distributed money to both Republicans and Democrats, although Republicans were the main beneficiaries and have the most to lose from election-year fallout.
With the House still off for its January recess, Dreier said it will be weeks before he comes up with definitive legislation. He said he also wanted to deal with the "revolving door" issue — lawmakers who become well-paid lobbyists after leaving office.
Current congressional rules prohibit lobbyists from paying for travel for members of Congress and their staff.
But qualified private sponsors can pay for food, transportation and lodging when members of Congress travel to meetings, speaking engagements or fact-finding events in connection with official duties.
There have been incidents "which would clearly be seen as abuse of that," Dreier said.
Abramoff was cited for arranging lavish trips for members and their staff, including trips for former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to the Mariana Islands and to Scotland, where he played golf at St. Andrews.
A total ban on privately funded travel is likely to meet some resistance from lawmakers accustomed to fact-finding trips arranged by think tanks and nonprofit organizations as an alternative to taxpayer-funded trips.
"There's a difference between a fact-finding trip that you do with the Aspen Institute and these trips funded by lobbyists and corporations where you do an hour of work and then play golf at St. Andrews all day," said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The Aspen Institute is a global policy think tank that sponsors scores of fact-finding trips for lawmakers every year.
Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, said in a telephone news conference that her group was encouraged by proposals to impose bans on travel and gifts. But she added that "if they just put on another ban," without proper enforcement, "it won't do any good."
Common Cause advocates establishing an independent ethics commission within Congress to monitor lobbying activities.
Dreier said he had discussed lobbying reform legislation with Hastert on Tuesday, and had talked by phone with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was traveling in New Zealand.
McCain, a leader in promoting campaign finance legislation, is a chief sponsor of one of several proposed bills to overhaul lobbying rules and statutes. McCain's bill would require disclosure of travel arranged by lobbyists but would not eliminate all privately financed trips.
In addition to travel, lobbying overhaul bills would require lobbyists to provide more information about their contacts with lawmakers, ban or further restrict gifts to lawmakers, and require members of Congress to wait for up to two years before taking lobbying jobs.