By LIZ RUSKIN
Anchorage Daily News
February 13, 2006
Accepting such trips, which are often to industry conferences or awards dinners, is legal. House and Senate members sign disclosure statements for each one, saying the travel is for official duty, not private gain.
"As a chairman of a committee, it's sort of my obligation to go to these national conventions and . . . answer their questions, get their ideas (on) what we should do about the bills that are before us," said Stevens, the Alaska Republican who heads the Senate Commerce panel. Young, R-Alaska, chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
But critics in and out of Congress say the trips many lawmakers make too often look like free vacations, and the sponsors - typically corporations and trade associations - usually have business pending before Congress.
"Under the guise of fact-finding, they're going fishing in the Caribbean," said Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Common Cause.
These trips are in the glare of harsher light these days because of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Abramoff, who took business-as-usual practices to an extreme, arranged to fly then-House Republican Whip Tom DeLay and others in 2000 to Scotland, where they golfed on legendary courses. DeLay reported expenses of $28,000 for him and his wife for the 10-day trip.
Now several reformers, including Common Cause, are calling for a ban on privately funded travel, at least until there's an independent commission to separate the legitimate trips from the junkets.
Some members of Congress are also saying it is time to change their ways.
"Private travel has been abused by some, and I believe we need to put an end to it," House Speaker Dennis Hastert said last month, joining the call for a junket ban.
Other leaders, though, are resisting major changes.
The two senior Alaska lawmakers are not the highest fliers, but their use of privately funded travel is above average for Congress. Stevens is in the top 20 percent and Young in the top 10 percent, according to a list of sponsored travel expenses compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com.
Last winter, for example, Stevens flew to Hawaii's Big Island for a conference of the American Association of Airport Executives. The airport execs paid $1,500 for his flight and his stay at the Hapuna Prince Hotel, a resort with a highly rated beach and golf course.
Stevens also went to their Hawaii conference the previous January, which cost the airport execs $4,600. Three months after that, Stevens and his wife went to Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas to participate in a conference on Brazil. A think tank called the Aspen Institute paid $7,000 for the couple's trip.
Stevens, according to data compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.com, has taken 20 trips since 2000 that private groups have paid for, not counting campaign trips or government-sponsored travel. Total cost: $57,000.
Young took as many trips, often with his wife, and rang up about $80,000 over the same period. Trips to California, Florida and Nevada predominate on his list.
The disclosure reports lawmakers have to file for these trips don't typically say where they stayed, but the reimbursement amounts show $400-a-night hotel rooms are not unusual. In one unusually expensive two-day trip to Phoenix, Young reported hotel expenses of $1,898 for him and his wife, plus $350 for meals.
Young's spokesman, Grant Thompson, said the trips are important to the work of his committee, which has jurisdiction over the nation's transportation network.
"The best way to understand the unique requirements of different cities and regions in our nation is to go there," Thompson said in an e-mail. "He has crisscrossed our nation throughout his career to achieve that understanding."
One participant in the Hawaii airport conference Stevens has gone to twice suggests the event isn't all work.
John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, reported from the 2006 conference in his blog. He mourned that back trouble forced him to withdraw from the golf tournament and said a panel scheduled just ahead of the "golf outing" drew few participants.
The third day of the issues conference "was a repeat of the first two days, so I won't bore you with all the salacious details about who golfed with who, and what lobbyist split flapjacks with which Congressman," he wrote.
Stevens acknowledged there is "an aspect of entertainment" to some of these trips.
"After all, going to Hawaii is not bad," he said. "Going to Alaska, in the summertime, when it just happens to be good fishing, is not bad either."
Young's spokesman said that if private groups couldn't pay for his travel, "another means for funding them would be necessary."
"There is still a need for members of Congress to see, hear, feel and touch America," Thompson said. "Congress cannot become insulated from the people we represent or areas that we are charged to oversee by our Constitution."
Stevens insisted he'd be happy if he weren't allowed to take such trips.
"I'd just as soon be absolutely banned so that I don't have any obligation to any citizens of the United States except Alaskans, and I'll just go home and fish," he said.
He could travel at government expense, he noted.
He has other funds to draw from too. If he travels to a political fund raiser, for example, his campaign account can pay. He, like most senators, also has another fund, a leadership political action committee, that can pay his way to other events.
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