House Ethics Committee Moves to Stop Travel Violations

The House ethics committee Thursday offered to provide advance approval of lawmakers' special interest trips, a move to curb travel abuses that have ensnared two prominent Republicans in federal investigations.

The program is voluntary now, but a version could be permanent under a bill that next will go to House and Senate negotiators.

For lawmakers to have their trips blessed in advance by the ethics committee, the private entities paying for the travel would have to disclose considerable advance information to the committee.

If golfing at the famed St. Andrews course in Scotland is on the itinerary, the trip sponsor would have to disclose it in advance. The requested information also is designed to catch indirect trip payments by lobbyists, who ask their clients to send donations to a trip sponsor.

Lawmakers are prohibited under their rules from accepting travel financed by lobbyists.

Members of Congress currently report the cost of transportation, lodging and meals for trips financed by special interests, but omit the golfing, sightseeing or shopping parts of travel that are closer to a vacation.

Under the voluntary system, the ethics committee would require information so detailed it would include hourly itineraries. The committee could ask that lawmakers, who must disclose their trips in public reports, to amend any incomplete reporting.

Democrats have made congressional corruption a major campaign issue in this election year, in part because two prominent Republicans — former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, and the former committee chairman, Bob Ney of Ohio — took trips financed by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Both lawmakers are under federal investigation. Prosecutors are trying to determine whether they accepted favors from Abramoff in return for help with legislation sought by his clients. Both lawmakers denied wrongdoing.

House rules bar lawmakers from accepting trips from lobbyists, although Abramoff sometimes laundered the travel money through the trip sponsors.

The Associated Press disclosed last week that prosecutors have e-mails showing DeLay's office knew Abramoff had arranged the financing for the GOP leader's controversial European golfing trip in 2000 and was concerned "if someone starts asking questions."

The program worked out by the ethics committee chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and the top Democrat, Rep. Howard Berman of California, is voluntary and temporary through June 15.

Legislation to provide greater disclosure of lobbyists' activities also includes provisions for advance approval of each privately financed trip — by a two-thirds vote of the ethics committee.

The committee would be required to work out permanent rules; the voluntary proposal could be a forerunner.

In the past, lawmakers trying to explain controversial trips issued public statements that their travel was approved by the ethics committee. Committee members have made clear, however, that there was no extensive inquiry prior to the travel.

Among the information sought in the voluntary program:

—A detailed agenda, including an hourly description of daily activities.

—Names of relatives accompanying a lawmaker or staff member.

—An itinerary that includes the dates of travel and cities of departure, destination and return.

—A description of the nature and amounts of travel expenses offered, including entertainment and recreational costs. Lawmakers often describe those expenses as "other."

—A statement by the sponsor on whether any funds were provided, directly or indirectly, by any third party; and, whether the third party designated the money for congressional travel. Each source of the funds must be disclosed separately.