By Vandana Sinha
WASHINGTON – The Aspen Institute paid for more than a quarter of all privately funded trips Maryland Congress members took since January 1996, but officials of the non-profit said all they are seeking is a “well-informed, bipartisan” Congress.
The institute spent almost $29,000 to send members of the Maryland delegation to educational conferences in Florida; Hawaii; Rome; Bermuda; Barcelona, Spain; and Lisbon, Portugal.
Aspen officials defended the trips, which accounted for nearly 62 percent of the total amount spent on the delegation.
“If you look at our schedules and the scholars we invite, these are very serious meetings,” said Dick Clark, a former senator from Iowa and director of Aspen Institute’s congressional program.
“Now if you ask if things are done in the sun, and if members go out afterward, then yes. I’m not a Calvinist. I don’t feel that things have to be done in the worst way to get something done,” he said.
The program, funded with foundation grants, was created by Clark in 1985 to invite scholars to help enlighten members of Congress on specific foreign policy topics. He said he needed to spice up the conference locations to attract more members and prevent them from canceling out.
“What I found was that people came late, left early and were on the phone all the time,” Clark said. “If I took people overseas with spouses to reasonably attractive places, they’d come and stay. It has worked a hell of a lot better.”
That argument irks Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, who believes such trips pander to already extravagant lifestyles.
“There’s a problem with this,” he said. “Members of Congress live such a high-flying lifestyle that they forget about the ordinary economic problems average people have everyday … like not being able to take a vacation because we can’t afford to.”
Ruskin worried that the invited scholars may have interests of their own before Congress. But Clark said he chooses experts who know about a subject, not those who lobby for it.
He said the Carnegie, Ford, MacArthur and Luce foundation boards have not interfered, pushed an agenda or even attended the 50 conferences they have backed in the past dozen years.
He said that “no group with legislative interests” donates a dime directly or indirectly, thanks to the tax code governing philanthropic foundations.
Common Cause Legislative Director Meredith McGehee called the Aspen Institute a “respected organization” that does not face much criticism from fellow congressional watch groups.
“No one should get a free ride,” she said, “but if people could travel on that (Aspen Institute trips), and that’s all they could do … I wouldn’t be very troubled.”