Have Seat, Will Travel

Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation have taken 91 sponsored trips since 2000.There’s nothing better than traveling to interesting and exotic places, except traveling to interesting and exotic places when someone else pays for it. Since 2000, members of the Colorado congressional delegation have taken 91 trips sponsored by private groups at a total cost of just over $311,000, according to a database maintained by Legistorm.

The most prolific gadabout in the delegation is Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette, who took 21 trips at a sponsored cost of $63,124. Second most active was Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, 16 trips at $56,726, and third was retired Repblican Rep. Scott McInnis, 15 trips at $54,030.

Members of Congress are allowed to take trips paid for by legislative sponsors as long as those trips are connected to their work in Congress. There’s nothing illegal or unethical about it. In the case of the trips taken by the Colorado delegation, all appear to be closely connected to issues on which the legislator was involved.

All privately funded trips are pre-approved by the  House or Senate ethics committees. Under the House rules, for instance:

“Travel will not be approved if it does not include sufficient officially-connected activities, or if it includes excessive amounts of unscheduled time for opportunities for recreational activities during the official itinerary, even if such activities are engaged in at personal expense.”

But compared with other members of Congress, the travel record of the Colorado delegation is pretty tame. Of the 651 current and former members of Congress tracked in the database, DeGette is only the 71st most traveled member, and Tancredo and McInnis don’t even crack the top 100. Rep. Barney Frank , D-Mass., is the best-traveled congressman, taking 84 privately financed trips since 2000 at a total cost of slightly more than $100,000.

Privately funded travel has been controversial over the years. On the one hand it allows members to get a first-hand education on issues that they might otherwise be unable to. But critics have charged that it opens the door to undue influence by those who are paying for the trips.

A few of these trips are simply junkets. For instance, Legistorm reports:

Former Rep. (and later Gov.) Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.) and Sen. (and presidential candidate) Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. (and current House Minority Leader) John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not hide the purpose of their trips as being to golf, even though ethics rules at the time required the trip to be “officially connected.” Nor did staffer Paul Vinovich hide that he traveled to Houston in 2003 to golf. On the other hand, his boss, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), hid that he went to Scotland exclusively to golf with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney was sentenced to federal prison as a result of this trip and related indiscretions.

But many trips are for legitimate research to less-than-glamorous locations. One of Tancredo’s staffers took a trip to the western Sahara to look at refugee conditions.

Most of DeGette’s trips, for instance, were to conferences on health care or education reform. She is a member of the House health subcommittee. The most expensive trip she took was to Israel — $8,600 — for an “education mission” sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation.

Likewise, the purpose of many of Tancredo’s sponsored trips was to speak about or attend conferences on immigration issues, a question that, as we know, is dear to his heart. Tancredo also took some expensive trips – to Turkey in 2000, $13,600; to France in 2004, $11,700; and a trip with a staffer to the United Arab Emirates totaling $18,000 in 2001. But Tancredo is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The trip to Turkey was paid for by a Turkish lobbying group; the trip to France by airplane manufacturer Airbus Industries; and the UAE trip by the Islamic Institute.

The rest of the Colorado Congressional travelers since 2000 were:

Rep. Mark Udall, D, 7 trips, $14,770
Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R, 6 trips, $17,069
Rep. Bob Schaffer, R, 5 trips, $7,217
Sen. Ken Salazar, D, 5 trips, $4,330
Rep. John Salazar, D, 4 trips, $25,296
Rep. Bob Beauprez, R, 4 trips, $27,658
Rep. Joel Hefley, R, 3 trips, $5,603
Sen. Wayne Allard, R, 3 trips, $9,188
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R, 2 trips, $26,399

The destinations for these trips are also often criticized for their junket potential, perhaps held a golf course or a seaside resort. But the sponsors hold these events at these attractive sites because they want people to attend – not just members of Congress.

Next in this series: While it’s easy to get worked up about the most egregious junket scandals many of these fact-finding trips are legitimate and necessary for informed lawmaking. So, what does it all mean for taxpayers?