When the cat’s away, the mice will play. In terms of congressional financing, the cat is public disclosure. Given the do-nothing Congress’ indifference to its abysmal public image, I probably shouldn’t be shocked that the House has just quietly watered down its rules for reporting trips taken by legislators that are paid for by private groups. Since Watergate, reps have had to include those all-expense-paid travels on their annual disclosure forms. No more. According to The National Journal, while these junkets still have to be recorded with the House Clerk, they will now be absent from the forms that journalists and watchdog groups rely upon to track legislators’ finances.
This is all about who is influencing those whom we elect to represent us in Congress. The Journal cites studies by Legistorm, a group that aggregates all the data on disclosure forms and press releases pertaining to the comings and goings of legislators and their aides. According to Legistorm, these junkets have hit their highest level since Congress tightened the rules when Jack Abramoff went to jail for influence peddling. And the National Journal notes that, while lobbyists are no longer allowed to underwrite these legislative excursions, those same individuals are closely tied to (and sometimes share office space with) interest groups that are not barred from doing so. And, by the way, spouses are often included on these trips.
Not all legislative travel should be dismissed as junkets, a loaded word. Some are legitimately fact-finding. I surely prefer that our legislators and their staffs see first hand conditions abroad that warrant US support or involvement. Face to face meetings with counterparts in other parts of the world are often important building blocks when crises hit and we need avenues of back-door diplomacy. Informed use of our tax dollars are preferable to uninformed spending. Even the use of privately sponsored trips can be of value, taking decision-makers out of the Washington bubble.
But the public, especially through journalists and watchdog groups, needs total disclosure of where our officials are getting their information, who’s paying for them to get it and whom they’re travelling with. Next time you’re with a person asking for your vote in November, ask them where they stand on travel disclosure.
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