Tuesday, May 10, 2005

you know all the right people, you play all the right games

The best government your special interest money can buy.

Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) seems to be taking a page out of the Tom Delay playbook. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that he has amassed a whopping $111,000 travel bill over the past 14 months, most of which was paid for by private groups (i.e. special interests).

What is rather ironic about this $8,000 a month travel habit is that in the district he supposedly represents, his travel bill alone represents the annual median pre-tax income for 3 of his "constituents" combined. Good thing these "private groups" are willing to cover the tab.
F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the state's senior Republican in Congress, visited New Orleans, Las Vegas and 11 foreign countries - some overseas destinations twice - in the 14 months ending in February.

Together with his wife and two aides, Sensenbrenner amassed more than $111,000 in travel bills then, often relying on private groups to pick up the tab, according to a Journal Sentinel review.

The Menomonee Falls lawmaker, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, had travel bills three times as high than any other federal lawmaker from Wisconsin during that period.

The review of congressional travel came amid intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill involving travel by lawmakers who rely on outside sources to pay their way, often descending on famed, faraway places average Americans only dream of.

The Journal Sentinel's review, done routinely, is mirrored by probes by other news organizations and watchdog groups - scrutiny triggered largely by controversy over trips involving House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

Several newspapers have reported that some of DeLay's overseas trips might have been paid for by a Washington lobbyist entangled in criminal and congressional investigations.
Reforms expected
However, Norman J. Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research predicts that the allegations against DeLay - who has denied any wrongdoing - will result in reform measures.

"People have cynically abused and misused the travel rules, and in my judgment that includes DeLay and others who foolishly, sloppily or wrongly didn't report trips - or reported a lobbying group paid for it because they didn't pay attention to what the rules are," said Ornstein, a political scientist who has studied Congress for 36 years.

Other watchdogs complain about the minimal disclosure about trips that is required of lawmakers. Larry Noble, at the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, said the danger of involving outside sponsors is their opportunity to hold sway with lawmakers in settings, which, records show, often are both exclusive and exotic.

Who funds trips is one key issue. Who's along for the ride is another. "You don't know who went along on these trips," he said. "And they're a way for organizations to gain access and get the member in a situation where they're receptive to what the organization has to say."

Lobbyists tag along
Some lawmakers from Wisconsin acknowledge that lobbyists - and in one case a registered foreign agent - tagged along.

Consider a trip Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) took with his wife, Janna, to the Middle East in April 2004. The overseas trip, paid for by the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation, cost more than $26,000.

Ryan, in an interview, said he learned Thursday that two people aboard his flight - Grover Norquist and Tanya Rahall, sister of House Democrat Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia - are lobbyists. Ryan said he thinks they attended the same conference.

Rahall is a registered foreign agent for the country of Qatar, according to the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Act Unit. Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, is a high-profile conservative activist.

Qatar, records show, was one of Ryan's stops. He said he attended a conference focused on the spread of democracy and free markets in the Middle East, which he called important and topical.

And Ryan said he makes it his practice to clear his so-called sponsored trips with the House Ethics Committee before taking them.

Referring to Norquist and Rahall, Ryan remembers them sitting in the back of the plane. He said they did not take part in panel discussions, nor did they attend meetings with him and Sensenbrenner, who also made the trip. "I never engaged with them," Ryan said.

Airfare costs
Airfare to and from the Middle East for Ryan and his spouse was more than $9,000 each. Ryan also brought along an aide, whose airfare of $5,800 and other expenses also were covered by the foundation, records show.

Sensenbrenner and his wife, Cheryl Warren Sensenbrenner, had airfare totaling more than $8,000 each on the Mideast trip.

When Sensenbrenner's press secretary, Raj Bharwani, was asked whether lobbyists were involved in any of Sensenbrenner's foreign trips, he said: "Lobbyists may have been in attendance at some of the foreign trips, but my boss did not travel with them, nor did he schedule any meetings with them."

The Journal Sentinel's review looked at foreign and domestic trips taken by members of Congress and their spouses or partner, and by aides to lawmakers only when they accompanied a lawmaker abroad. That Sensenbrenner landed in the top spot repeats a finding from a Journal Sentinel review of trips published in 2003.

Sensenbrenner's defense
Sensenbrenner, the only committee chairman among the eight Wisconsin House members, defended his travel.

"As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the post-September 11 world, I am responsible for numerous security issues, including border, visa and passport security, as well as intellectual property and developing technology issues that require international cooperation," he said in a statement. "The best way for the United States to encourage this necessary cooperation is to work directly with our foreign counterparts."

Sensenbrenner also is co-chair of the U.S.-Japan Legislative Exchange Program, according to the George Washington University professor who runs the exchange.

In his statement, Sensenbrenner also defended relying mainly on private groups to pay his way, saying: "Privately funded trips are an effective way for me to learn about these (security) issues and press for international cooperation without having taxpayers foot the bill."

But on the last point, watchdogs differ. Noble, formerly general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, said that if travel is critical to a lawmaker's work, taxpayers should pay. While some legislators maintain that they're saving taxpayers money by having outsiders pay, Noble is skeptical. If the trip results in persuasion, leading to a tax break or regulatory change favorable to an industry, it might cost taxpayers in the long run, he said.