Most of us (at least those who don't live or work within Washington's Beltway) probably figure that congressmen are on the payroll of the U.S. taxpayer. That's why there is so much public ire over trips taken by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and indirectly financed by lobbyists that stood to gain from government connections. But travel bankrolled by special interests is more common than many voters would like to believe. Indeed, a new study by the Associated Press found that about 10% of House members and dozens of congressional aides have rushed forward since the DeLay ethics flap surfaced with tardy disclosures of their own special interest-funded trips.
Such travel, often paid for by corporations, think tanks, nonprofits, or trade groups, is supposed to be disclosed within 30 days under House rules. But the AP review of documents filed since early March (when the DeLay flap caught the public eye) found some House members took up to eight years to report trips. This lax disclosure knows no bounds of party affiliation or political ideology. Even Representative Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), a member of the Ethics Committee that could be called on to investigate DeLay's travel, overlooked reporting a European trip until recently.
Congress, which hasn't been shy about imposing strict disclosure rules on business, should be expected to live up to its own disclosure rules. Unfortunately, asking congressmen and their staffers simply to report outside-funded travel won't actually let voters know who is footing the bill for these outings. Washington's money crowd is smarter than that. Often the travel is paid for by independent think tanks or innocuous-sounding nonprofit groups -- names like The Center for Good Government are the preferred nomenclature for such bodies -- that may be just pass-the-cash intermediaries. Current rules don't require such organizations to disclose names of their actual funders.
If this sounds like a pretty cozy arrangement, it is. Politicians get to do fact-finding or speaking engagements -- and perhaps squeeze in some golf or sightseeing -- on someone else's dime. Deep-pocketed individuals or groups get to influence debate or specific legislation without revealing their identities. And often well-meaning middlemen organizations get access to politicians to push their own agendas. Everybody knows how this game is played -- except voters.
The current setup is wrong for two simple reasons. First, failing to report special interest-funded trips promptly only invites speculation that public officials wish to hide the true motives behind their travel. That erodes the public's already shaky confidence in Congress specifically and government in general. Second, allowing anonymous giving to underwrite public officials' trips encourages attempts at influence buying. To be sure, all Americans have a First Amendment right to advocate issues that concern them. But that doesn't mean they should have undisclosed financial access to influence the public's representatives. That's why the House should make groups paying for congressional travel disclose their funding sources. Congress won't be eager to adopt such a reform, even amid the DeLay flap. But transparency isn't good just for financial markets or business. It belongs in government, too.