WASHINGTON – The 17 members of Congress who went to Dublin, Ireland, on an Aspen Institute-paid trip last summer got a walking tour of the city. They also spent six or seven hours each of the four days in discussions with scholars and policymakers about U.S. relations with Europe and Russia.
It was not quite the same as the itinerary for trips arranged by disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, when golf at St. Andrews' famed course in Scotland was the highlight.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, seeking cover for Republicans in a growing influence-peddling scandal, has proposed banning all such trips, whether they are intended to improve lawmakers' knowledge of an issue or their putting skills. His idea is running into resistance, even from his second in command.
The new House majority leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, defends privately-funded travel as essential and suggests continuing to allow the trips if they meet House rules.
Boehner, who also discounts several other proposals for overhauling lobbying rules, has taken more than three dozen privately funded trips at home and abroad since 2000.
"We can't lock members up in a cubbyhole here in Washington and never let them see what's going on around the country and around the world," Boehner said on "FOX News Sunday."
"Members need to be educated, they need to be kept up to speed on what's happening, and these trips, to a large extent, help educate members," he said.
Hastert's proposed changes, including restrictions on gifts to and meals for lawmakers, were to have been released last week. They were postponed, however, when several GOP members balked at some of the measures during a private meeting.
"We are now in a long-term war against terrorism," said Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., who is concerned about a total ban on travel. "If we think for a second that we are going to have cooperation from other freedom-loving countries in the world by isolating ourselves, we are kidding ourselves."
Current congressional rules permit lawmakers to accept payment from qualified private sponsors for necessary food, transportation and lodging involved in trips for speaking engagements or fact-finding. Lobbyists are not allowed to pay for such trips.
PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign spending, says that 638 members of Congress made 6,689 trips in the 2000-2005 period, receiving just under $20 million. The top foreign destinations were Israel, Mexico, Germany and China.
By comparison, the government spent some $7.7 million in that period to send just House members overseas as official congressional delegations. At least that much also was on trips by lawmaker's staffs.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee who travels extensively on human rights issues. He said he tries to avoid privately sponsored trips.
"Public trips are much preferable," he said. "It gives me a sense of independence. It gives you the freedom to pursue every aspect of an issue."
Wamp said citizens would balk at increased use of taxpayer money for foreign travel, and there is wide support for events arranged by groups such as the Aspen Institute, the leading private sponsor of overseas trips.
Former Sen. Dick Clark, D-Iowa, who founded the institute's Congressional Program in 1983, said the Dublin conference on Russia relations was the 86th of its kind. "The whole idea is to bring together the best scholars in the world" with policymakers and "have an intense four-day seminar."
The Dublin event, which included Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the Senate's second-ranked Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, featured talks on nonproliferation, Russian democracy and the European Union constitution.
The institute is funded by such groups as the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It spent from $4,800 to $9,800 per lawmaker for the trip, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Clark said the institute takes no money from lobbyists and does not pay for any recreational activities.
"Foreign travel is essential in an era of globalization," he said at a recent Senate hearing on lobbying overhaul. "A total ban on privately funded travel would be a disservice to members of Congress."
The main Democratic bill on lobbying changes would further restrict lobbyist participation in travel; it does not propose an outright ban.
Advocacy groups pressing for an end to congressional junkets acknowledge it is a complex issue.
"We don't want members of Congress sitting behind their desk all day long," said Mary Boyle, spokeswoman for Common Cause. She said Congress needs to create an independent outside panel to determine ethics questions, including which trips are educational and which are junkets.
"Unless we have an outside body to monitor this, we think the abuses have been so great and have been going on so long that we should just stop the private travel," she said.