Monday, January 16, 2006

The Price of Admission

The Congressional practice of accepting corporate 'gifts' has a long and glorious history. In my life time, a vicuna coat was the first memorable gift that caught my attention. I wasn't quite sure what a vicuna was, but I do recall the disgusted look on my father's face as he read the newspaper, so I pretty much knew it was an evil of some kind.

Today's gift giving is a whole lot more complex. While the current headlines talk mostly about cash transfers during election periods and during the run-up to crucial Congressional votes, and those transfers have been to Republican members' accounts, it is becoming clearer than ever that the bribery also takes more elegant forms and are so common that most members of Congress don't see anything unethical about them. An editorial in today's Washington Post details just one of the 'perks' that Congress critters have come to enjoy.

WHEN REP. TOM DeLay (R-Tex.) had to attend his arraignment on money-laundering charges in Texas last year, he got there in the style to which he had become accustomed as House majority leader: on a corporate jet, in this case one owned by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

There are many hard calls to make about how to tighten rules governing lawmakers and lobbyists. Banning members of Congress from using corporate jets as their own private air taxi service isn't one of them. This practice -- as seductive for lawmakers as it should be offensive to their constituents -- ought to be prohibited.

... According to a report in The Post last May by R. Jeffrey Smith and Derek Willis, a dozen current and former leaders, in both houses and both political parties, flew on corporate jets at least 360 times between January 2001 and December 2004; Republican leaders took 265 trips, Democrats 95. Mr. DeLay and then-Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), now seeking to take Mr. DeLay's place, were the two top users, accounting for at least 140 trips between them; Mr. Blunt alone hitched a ride on about 30 companies' planes.

Members of Congress don't fly free on corporate planes, but neither, for the most part, do they pay anything near full freight. Senate rules require payment of first-class airfare if the route has regular commercial service and full reimbursement if no scheduled service exists. Under House rules, lawmakers must reimburse companies for the equivalent of first-class airfare if the plane was scheduled to fly the route in any event. While specially arranged flights theoretically require reimbursement for the full cost, the Post investigation found that "virtually none of the reimbursements matched the actual cost of the unscheduled flights." Moreover, lawmakers' corporate trips aren't easily found in the public record. Their use of the aircraft is buried in campaign records.

...Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) well understands the benefits of this travel: During the 2000 presidential campaign, he tapped a dozen companies and wealthy donors for use of their planes. Now the senator has proposed a lobbying bill, as has Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), that, while it would not absolutely ground such flights, would require that members pay fair market value and disclose where the plane was going, the purpose of the trip and who was on board.
[Emphasis added]

Now, there are a few things that bother me about this information. First of all, I fail to see why lawmakers need to 'borrow' corporate jets in the first place, especially since one key member of the flight crew is always that corporation's lobbyist. If there are no commercial flights available, why can't the member of Congress just charter a flight and then pay for it?

Second, why are the records of the use of these flights buried in 'campaign' reports? In fact, why are campaign reports so difficult to access?

But I suppose what bothers me the most is the timing of this editorial. Why wasn't it written last May when the investigative report was printed in the Post? The answer to that one is fairly easy to discern. The current scandal involving Jack Abramoff is in fact a purely Republican scandal. Apparently the Post editorial board has been suckered into believing the GOP whine that "the other side does it, too." I'm sure a quick computer search of the archives that pulled up the Smith and Willis article was done so that the paper could take the edge off the headlines about the recent resignations from GOP leadership posts. Fair and Balanced.

Sadly, the Democrats will now have to deal with what is clearly an abuse as well. The new McCain-Finegold bills will at least be a start.


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