Luxury resorts. Private jets. A trip to the Wimbledon finals. These are just a few of the perks enjoyed by members of Congress — with the tab picked up by outside interests jockeying for influence.
In the last four and a half years, members of Congress have taken more than 4,800 trips funded by private groups at a price tag of $14.4 million, according to an investigation by the Medill News Service in partnership with American Public Media's Marketplace evening business radio program and its national documentary unit, American RadioWorks.
The investigation culminates in "Power Trips: Congress Hits the Road," a series of radio broadcasts and newspaper reports examining the little-publicized rule allowing U.S. representatives and senators to take privately funded trips — and the lack of enforcement of the rules. "Power Trips" puts the spotlight on some of Congress' most frequent flyers and the groups that most often fund them.
"Power Trips" airs on Marketplace on public radio stations nationwide on Sept. 27 and 28, and appears in print starting Sept. 27 in a 10-part series in 24 daily newspapers served by Medill News Service.
The reports are the result of a four-month investigation by a team of graduate students from the Medill School of Journalism under the direction of assistant dean and Medill News Service co-director Ellen Shearer with Steve Henn of American RadioWorks. Together, they built a navigable database including every travel disclosure form for privately funded trips filed by Congress members from Jan. 1, 2000, through June 30, 2004.
According to the reports, Senate and House members since 2000 have accepted about 200 trips worth $400,000 without disclosing where they went, and another 31 trips worth about $66,000 without disclosing who paid for them.
Members of the public can examine the records of their own — or all — Congress members by visiting the Web-based database at http://www.americanradioworks.org/features/congtravelor http://www.medillnewsdc.com/.
IN THE MARKETPLACE RADIO REPORTS:
Sept. 27, Rules of the Road: Shortly before retiring from Congress, Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and his wife took a four-day trip to England for $31,000. They flew the Concorde to London, stayed in a $1,000-a-day suite at the Savoy Hotel, and watched the Wimbledon finals from nearly $3,000 seats. Although Bliley disclosed the House rules-violating gift, the ethics committee did not investigate.
Sept. 28, King of Travel: The king of congressional travel is Sen. John Breaux (D-La.). In a little more than four years, Breaux has taken 56 all-expense-paid trips. Industry groups, lobbyists and universities have paid his travel expenses of more than $158,000. The amount of free travel Breaux accepted each year exceeds the median household income in the state of Louisiana.
IN THE MEDILL NEWS SERVICE REPORTS:
While Breaux took, on average, a free trip every month at the expense of private groups, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) was Congress' most frugal legislator, listing 37 trips worth less than $500 each for the same period.
Although some members of Congress took privately funded trips to make speeches in places like Pittsburgh and Peoria, Ill., others went on fact-finding jaunts to Aspen, Colo., or spent $3,000 on meals at a five-day conference in Barcelona, Spain.
The Aspen Institute was the most generous private group to fund trips, spending more than $2.5 million on them. The Ripon Society's Ripon Educational Fund ranked second, spending $615,000 for 60 trips.
The most popular destination for members of Congress was Florida and its resorts, followed by California and New York. West Virginia, home to the luxurious Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, was fourth. Several foreign cities — Rome and London, for example — also made the top 20 most-popular-destination list.
In addition to the main stories, Medill reporters wrote 14 sidebars on specific states or industries, such as banking and defense contractors.