Tight Schedule, Close Scrutiny Scuttle Many Congressional Vacations

The January junket to warmer climates — a postholiday tradition of sorts for some members of Congress — could be headed to the wayside.

An accelerated work schedule set up by the new Democratic leadership has put a halt on many January excursions funded by lobbyists. Given that Democrats are taking over the House and Senate in part because of GOP ethics scandals, some lawmakers are fearful of the voters' wrath anyway if they go on the trips.

"I think members are looking more closely at privately funded travel, and I think ... many of them are being careful and avoiding it," said Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa.

The last time members had to work much of January was 1995, when a newly Republican-led House took control, recalled Todd Hauptli, senior executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives.

For the past 21 years, except for 1995, his organization paid for members to fly to Hawaii to discuss airline issues at a conference. This January, members are declining the offer and will participate by videotape.

"They can't really be scooting around the country when Congress is in session," Hauptli said.

Members also will be missing out this January on attending the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where TiVo digital records and Nintendos first were introduced. The Consumer Electronics Association spent thousands last year sending a few members and their staffs to the show, where they stayed in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

An Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman said the group does not expect any lawmakers to use hotel rooms reserved for them in January at a hotel near the annual Detroit auto show, where new cars and technologies are showcased. Instead, the group is encouraging members to attend the Washington auto show later in the month, said Charles Territo, an association spokesman.

"We'll continue to look at other ways to educate members of Congress," Territo said.

Attention surrounding the excesses of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is now in federal prison, brought the practice of lobbyist-funded travel to light. Abramoff defrauded American Indian tribe clients of millions of dollars while arranging lavish trips and meals for public officials.

Former Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who resigned this year after pleading guilty to corruption, was one lawmaker who participated in an Abramoff-sponsored trip that included transport on a $92,000 chartered jet to Scotland for a golf outing.

After the scandal broke, privately funded travel expenditures by members dropped from $3.6 million in 2005 to about $1.4 million in 2006, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks campaign spending.

Both the House and Senate passed changes in lobbying laws and rules in 2006 under Republican leadership, but neither chamber voted to ban privately funded travel altogether. The two chambers were never able to bridge their differences and produce final legislation.

Democrats have promised to tackle the issue of ethics again in 2007.

While there may be perks such as lavish meals and concerts involved in lobbyist-funded trips, some people say they can be a legitimate way for members to get exposure outside Washington.

They also say members get time away from Washington to learn about complicated issues without members getting interrupted by vote calls. Not all privately funded travel is connected to lobbyists, either. Some educational institutions fund travel.

Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs of the Consumer Electronics Association, said those who attend the electronics show hear from corporate executives and can learn about timely technologies such as broadband Internet and digital television.

"If you want to promote good policy making, the last thing you want to do is lock policy makers up in the ivory tower of Washington," Petricone said.

Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., said there are plenty of trips that members can take without lobbyists covering the bill. Platts said he invites people to his district office if he wants to meet with them for a long time. He also has gone abroad — four times to Iraq, and two times to Afghanistan — to visit troops.

"If it's something that has any business, in relationship to your job, your job is going to pay for the travel," Platts said.

Some new members say they plan to say no to lobbyist-funded travel from the get-go.

"No matter what the rules say, it's a perception problem," said Sen.-elect Bob Casey, D-Pa.