Congress has been on recess, as members of Congress have toured their home states/districts, but our persistent skepticism towards our federal government has steadily churned along — and for good reason.
Amidst the late dog days of summer recess (August 5-September 6), the debate over congressional ethics reform has been heating up. In an age-old practice — one that has received much, but not enough, scrutiny — some U.S. lawmakers once again have spent time traveling across the globe — from China, to Israel, to Scotland and Canada — on the tab of powerful lobbyist groups.
Although these trips are often designated as purely fact-finding, educational, or aimed at cultural understanding, the past actions of the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and associated Republican house members — including former Congressman Bob Ney — should caution us to the influence-peddling of special interests, and challenge us to re-evaluate congressional ethics reform.
According to LegiStorm, a non-partisan watchdog group, privately financed trips given by lobbyists, corporate interests, foreign governments and universities have been on the rise since government reforms were implemented in 2007, following the Abramoff scandals. This year, 1,363 trips costing hosts $3.2 million have been taken, down from a peak of 5,000 trips costing $10 million. But the reforms written in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 were not enough and are no longer working (as evidenced by the rise of these kind of trips).
The recess, aptly named, is far from a vacation — as MCs are expected to use this time to handle district affairs, reconnect with pertinent issues back home, and gather the concerns of their constituents. However, when some of our elected officials spend this time taking privately-financed trips from lobbyist organizations with specific legislative goals in mind — the trust deficit between the public and its elected government suffers. For these interest groups, it’s money well spent garnering rapport and gaining valuable time with powerful legislators, but there’s little to be gained for the American public when officials are away from home and potentially beholden to the interests of those who offered them an assortment of perks and luxuries.
So just who has been up to potential interest group schmoozing shenanigans this year? And more importantly, just what did they most likely learn from their lavish lobbyist-funded summer trip?
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the ranking No. 1 Republican and No. 2 Democrat in the House, respectively, led groups of about 20 House Republicans and 40 House Democrats, primarily freshman lawmakers, on a trip to the Holy Land this summer, bankrolled by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
According to LegiStorm, who in turn retrieved this information from filer Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), the AIPAC may have spent close to $1 million ferrying MCs to see Israel’s importance. OK, so technically the AIPAC didn’t bankroll this trip — that kind of spending would be unethical. Instead, the American Israel Education Foundation, the education, and therefore less regulated, arm of the pro-Israel lobby funded the trips. Although American Politics 101 states that you can’t ostensibly be anything but a strong proponent of Israel, it certainly doesn’t feel too comforting to know all house members are indoctrinated early on with their chummy Israel lobby.
Did you know there was such a thing? I didn’t. For your further education, learn about all the caucuses of the U.S. Congress. I was unable to dig up just who went on this trip this summer to Scotland — four Republicans and one Democrat. In this case, the Scottish government has funded its congressional U.S. allies to tour the country and fight for Scottish interests in Washington. What’s some diplomacy without fun, I suppose? Among the many very extremely important things I’m sure they discussed was most likely plans for the annual April 6th Tartan Day hosted in the Capitol to celebrate the contributions of the over 11 million Americans who have Scottish and Scotch-Irish roots, making them the 8th largest ethnic group in the U.S. You learn something new every day!
The Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), funded by the Chinese government (as are most institutions in China), invited Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and ten other caucus members to a round of festivities in Beijing, including a meeting with first ranked (yes, there are multiple in the Politburo) Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli (7th ranked in the CPC Standing Committee). Some talk about economics, no doubt. Some goodwill here and there. Keep your perceived economic frenemies very close to your chest, I suppose.
Although this wasn’t a summer trip, in January this year a five member delegation of the U.S.-China Working Group went to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing, paid for by the National Committee on United States-China Relations. This group included USCWG members co-chair Reps. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Jim Costa (D-Flor.), Leonard Lance (R-New Jersey), as well as Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Billy Long (R-Misso.). NCUSCR is another fo-po institute, but upon further inspection, it’s list of benefactors looks like the Fortune 500. Among the top donors: Chevron, United Airlines, Walmart, Apple, Disney.
Senator Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) is a somewhat polarizing figure in the Democratic Senate. One minute she’s joining the right side of history on marriage equality, another she’s making a dissenting vote opposing the Manchin-Toomey gun control amendment.
This August, the senator went to the Alberta, Canada oil sands to meet with Alberta Premier Alison Redford, Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer, and TransCanada pipeline officials. Given her state’s geographic and economic importance regarding the pending Keystone Pipeline XL, it would seem on the surface to be a full-on courting from key Canadian government and business stakeholders. President Obama will ultimately make the call, but it helps the pipeline proponents to have a key Senator from the president’s own party on their side.
Just as private families utilize the waning weeks before school starts for family vacation, so too do U.S. lawmakers. But like families, they must pay for their own expenses. If the public taxpayers are funding their travel, then they are held accountable and restricted by their annual expense allowances (House 2012 average allowance: $1,353,205; Senate average allowance: $3,209,103). If they are being privately funded by an interest group, then there is always a shadow of doubt whether or not these lawmakers feel indebted to these bankrolling organizations. All this together adds more to the trust deficit — fears of big brother, scandal, corruption, and lack of faith that the U.S. government has the best interests of its people. Exemptions for non-profits and educational institutes sound great on principle. But when loopholes are abused and any company can sprout a new “education” branch off of for-profit corporate foundation, it feels an awful lot like the wool is being pulled over your eyes.
Lobbyists, like bureaucrats, are often red-flagged terms. They are associated with the perceived evils of politics and government. However, we should be cautious of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Lobbyist advocates do have some key points of merit. Removing MCs away from the atmosphere in D.C. can allow them to re-engage with the issues in a different light, talk about industry, gain expertise they otherwise wouldn’t be informed of, or get a sense of the very things they are legislating about. Lobbyists operate on good faith and their word, like politicians. But when you lose your ethical compass and start blurring the lines between right and wrong, money and influence in politics becomes a very dangerous game — one where the ultimate losers are the American people.
Campaign finance reform, stricter ethics rules, more regulation, less regulation? There are moves that need to be made to reinstate greater trust and proper representation our American democracy deserves. The annual salary for our federal lawmakers is $174,000 — more than three times the annual median income. On average, a full-time employee of a private establishment receives somewhere between a week to two weeks of paid vacation. Members of Congress have a federal mandated break of a month. But don’t get me wrong, most people wouldn’t turn down a trip that involves a little bit of listening in exchange for a lifetime experience. It’s not as if all 535 members of Congress can afford to fund those same trips on their own dime with the same amount of access.
Privately financed trips by lobbyist organizations are questionable at best and incredibly destructive, and incredibly illegal, at its worst. That isn’t to say that these trips highlighted in this article demonstrate our national leaders being neatly pocketed by their wooing suitors. In middle school I was told that if I had to seriously ask myself whether or not it was going okay to do something, I best just not do it. Let the discussion continue .…