The congressional travel disclosure forms analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity are not easily reviewed. Some of them are kept only on paper in the bowels of the Capitol complex. There's no easy way for the public to access them by computer or even in person. CPI spent approximately nine months pouring through more than 23,000 forms to see who was paying for what travel to go where.
One interesting revelation is that it seems as important for private interests to take along Congressional staffers as it is for them to court members of Congress themselves. So there are a lot of trips in which staffers on important committees go on luxurious-sounding trips ... and take along a spouse or child.
Of course, not all the trips are frivolous. In some cases it can be hard to separate true educational trips from an overt lobbying effort. But, as the Center for Public Integrity points out, an inordinate number of "work" trips happen to be to some of the world's most desirable vacation destinations. Why does a member of Congress need to go to Vail, Colo., to learn about welfare?
It appears the record for the most expensive privately sponsored trip during the time frame analyzed is held by Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va., who went to London — with Brown & Williamson Tobacco picking up his $31,000 tab.
Such privately funded travel is legal. But some critics argue it is, or can appear to be, unethical because it makes it seem as though Congress is for sale. The members and staffers treated to global excursions often serve on Congressional committees that influence funding decisions impacting the private party paying for the trip.
For example, General Atomics, which makes the Predator robotic spy plane, financed approximately $660,000 in Congressional trips during the time period studied. The members of Congress and staffers who went on these trips (and brought guests with them) include those on the House Armed Services Committee. One chief of staff for a member of Congress took his wife along on one such trip to Australia, letting General Atomics pick up the $27,000 tab. Meantime, General Atomics' government contracts skyrocketed from $22 million to $347 million requested for 2007. General Atomics tells CBS News that it has a good product and that paying for Congressional trips is one way to get the word out to those who hold the purse strings.
Does any member of Congress get kudos from the Center for Public Integrity? The groups points out that Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat in her 10th term representing New York, travels infrequently and most of her recent trips have been relatively inexpensive and mundane-sounding. She says her personal policy on travel abroad is: "If you're not going over to work, don't go."