Tuesday, June 06, 2006

JUNKETS IN MY TRUNK

"What a fool I've been! I should have run for Congress! I deserve free trips too!"

Becoming a Senator is an expensive proposition, but should be considered a sound investment. Not only does every Senator retire with a 7+ figure income, but there are plenty of benefits for both Senators and Representatives while in office. Captain Ed at the Captain's Quarters blog caught a few stories on spending by congressmen:

The Center for Public Integrity reports that lobbyists provided Congress with over $50 million in trips between January 2000 and June 2005. The amount of time spent away from the office also comes to a staggering 81,000 days

The Washington Post reports:

From January 2000 through June 2005, House and Senate members and their aides were away from Washington for more than 81,000 days -- a combined 222 years -- on at least 23,000 trips, according to the report, issued yesterday by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. About 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more, and 16 cost $25,000 or more.

"While some of these trips might qualify as legitimate fact-finding missions," the study said, "the purpose of others is less clear." In addition, the lawmakers' financial reports that disclose the details of the trips are routinely riddled with mistakes and omissions.

Captain Ed examines this and a story from the Washington Examiner:

Make no mistake about it -- this travel and time away amounts to a significant portion of the job for our world travelers in Congress. With a total of 81,000 days on travel, that comes to over 150 days per member during the 66-month period. For every Congressman and Senator, that equals 27 days per year of lobbyist-paid travel, or almost a full month of supposed fact-finding.

The money also staggers. At $50 million, that means each member on average received over $93,000 in travel during the period under study, or approximately $17,000 each year. How much did you spend on your vacation last year? The most expensive vacation I ever took was our two-week trip to Ireland, which cost us somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 -- for the three of us. This would equate to having that trip three times a year, every year in office.

I would expect all voters of any party affiliation to be offended and annoyed by this sort of lobbyist excess. It's been happening for decades, and I'm glad to see it being finally examined by a few legacy news sources (coincidental that an election is coming up, I'm sure). Captain Ed closes with these thoughts, ones which resonate strongly with me:

Reducing the scope of federal government means that Congress has less resources to give away to special interests. It kills both the supply and demand sides of the corruption market. No one wants to buy a politician who cannot put money in pockets. Perhaps we might even keep our poor representatives from the stress of travel that must wear them out. At the least, we can keep them from wearing out our pocketbooks without even the courtesy of a postcard from their lobbyist-funded resort travel.

Commenters examined the information:

Congress is very touchy about their "fact finding" trips. Remember during the last presidential campaign when somebody pointed out how few times Kerry bothered to show up in the Senate? Carl Levin rushed to his defense claiming that senators do a lot of work even when they aren't in the chambers or their offices.

This is undoubtedly true, but it covers up the fact that they are getting an awful lot of freebies from lobbyists. What do the lobbies get in return? Hmmm...

In my opinion, these trips are nothing more than thinly disguised bribes. stackja1945 is right: we should make them illegal and throw any congresscritter in jail who takes them.
-by docjim505


I can't speak to all of these, but Roy Blunt traveled to over 100 districts last year to support Republican candidates. That largely accounts for his appearance on the list (of this "nonpartisan" group that always just somehow tilts toward the left).

Post Gingrich the Congressional GOP has had a hard time keeping its hands out of the cookie jar, but it must be said that while PorkBusters is a great cause, not every instance is equal.
-by Major Major Major Majority


"The market for corruption" is one of those terms that comes along every once in a while and suddenly pops a light on in one's head that organizes things in a whole different way.

For example, politicians aren't purchases; they are investments! And as investments, they are routinely analyzed on the basis of "risk-adjusted rate of return" and similarly accumulated into "well diversified portfolios". To fully understand the process one must have at least a passing aquaintence with "Modern Portfolio Theory" and "Net Present Value" theories but a return to the old grad school text books might be in order.

Modigliani and Miller would be proud! Moskowitz would be thrilled and Milton Friedman would wonder what took us so long!!
-by Lew


See who's buying their trips and where they're traveling to:

http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/congtravel/index.html

Babs Boxer seems to have a penchant for the more exotic locations.
-by Oyster


I was all prepared to be outraged by this story, until I remembered one thing: Israel. I have it on fairly good authority that one of the big eye openers for Congress people is the opportunity to see with their own eyes how small Israel is. A map apparently doesn't convey either Israel's vulnerability or how little space she takes up in the greater Muslim Middle East. If this type of trip is a good reality check, maybe others are too.
-by Bookworm

As Bookworm and others rightly point out, not all trips are equal, and condemnation based simply on cost and frequency is not using valid criteria. Congressmen ought to travel home for events and to gather information, they can't represent their constituents without this. Congressmen ought to visit locations about which they are making significant decisions, to get a better understanding of the conditions and local situation. But at the same time, it is difficult to understand why Senator Clinton really needed to visit Ireland and India.

One should note that most of the violators listed are Republican, which is statistically probable when the GOP is in the majority of officeholders in the US Congress. However, statistics ought not compel these men and women, ethics ought to. And it is noteworthy that of the top 10 money-taking congressmen, 6 of them are minority-party Democrats. According to American Radioworks, the party breakdown looks like this, alphabetically:

Democratic Party
Number of trips for party members: 3674
Total spent on party members: $10,471,578.35
Percentage of total spent on party: 54.0%

Independents
Number of trips for party members: 95
Total spent on party members: $178,281.50
Percentage of total spent on party: 0.9%

Republican Party
Number of trips for party members: 2802
Total spent on party members: $8,759,848.27
Percentage of total spent on party: 45.1%

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