By Vandana Sinha
WASHINGTON – Maryland’s 10 members of Congress took 30 privately funded trips worth $47,000 in the past two years, while their staffers went on 28 such junkets worth $27,000, according to congressional travel records.
The trips ranged from a one-night stay in Baltimore for a conference to a 10-day trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, all funded by companies, think tanks or other private organizations.
“There’s really a hunger up there [on Capitol Hill] for gifts and things that I’ve never really seen anywhere. These are the kings and queens of wanting,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Congressional Accountability Project.
But experts say the Maryland delegation is typical of states its size when it comes to taking junkets on somebody else’s dime. And members defended the travel as related to their duties.
“It’s very similar to what other states are doing. I don’t think it’s anything out of the ordinary,” said David Engel, a researcher with the Center for Public Integrity.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., racked up the biggest private travel bill, reporting nine trips since January 1996 that cost close to $19,000 for transportation, lodging, meals and other expenses. He last month went to Greece to dedicate a Holocaust memorial, but his office would not say who paid for the trip.
Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Baltimore County, also reported nine trips but his travel bill only totaled $3,947. Most were speaking engagements to banking groups and corporate conventions.
Like Sarbanes, he traveled last month on a Congressional Economic Leadership Institute trip to a European Union meeting in Paris. The cost of that trip is not yet available.
“His district demands a high-profile kind of representative. It’s a politically active district,” said Ehrlich’s spokesman, Richard Cross. “They want to keep a member who is visible.”
Sarbanes’ costliest trip — $6,000 to go to St. Petersburg – – was one of three foreign trips funded by the Aspen Institute to discuss relations with the former Soviet Union. He was invited to Russia, Rome and Barcelona, Spain, in his capacity as chairman of the Senate European Affairs Subcommittee.
Rep. Constance Morella, R-Montgomery, former chairwoman of the now-defunct Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, took her husband to an Aspen Institute conference in Bermuda on “international trade and the U.S. economy” in May 1996.
“It’s not by any means a golfing vacation, it’s an academic scholarly seminar,” said Morella’s spokeswoman, Mary Anne Leary. “They have lectures and have to do readings. They usually come home very tired.”
Morella took the delegation’s costliest trip, flying to India in April 1996 to discuss the “democratic process” with officials there. The Human Rights Project paid the $8,425 bill.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Prince George’s, went to Houston to address the National Association of Homebuilders and to Los Angeles for a meeting of the National Cable Television Association. Both trips were last year.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., also reported only two privately funded trips: an Aspen Institute conference in Lisbon, Portugal, on national security in November 1996 and a February tour of drug firm Glaxo Wellcome Inc.’s North Carolina headquarters to prepare for pending Food and Drug Administration reform legislation.
In his first trip since taking office in April 1996, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, went to Ghana and Zambia last month to promote family planning and male participation in reproductive health. The non-profit Population Action International paid for the trip.
“There are good lessons that can be learned from across the country and around the world,” said Darlene Taylor, Cummings’ chief of staff. “Health care has always been one of his priorities.”
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Prince George’s, took one privately funded trip, to a Miami Congressional Workshop conference on economic and social issues last year. Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R- Frederick, spent his only trip in a Baltimore hotel in January 1996 for a “large, informative gathering,” by the Heritage Foundation.
Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, also took one trip, an Aspen Institute-funded retreat in Hershey, Pa. But his staff took 12 privately funded trips, touring medical facilities and speaking to health panels on behalf of the House Health Subcommittee member.
Watchdog groups said sending staff on private junkets is “equally bad” as sending members of Congress.
“The problem does not go away when a staff member goes instead of a member of Congress because they can have significant influence over public policy,” said Bob Schiff, staff attorney at Public Citizens’ Congress Watch.
The Nuclear Energy Institute paid more than $5,000 to send Hoyer’s, Ehrlich’s and Bartlett’s staffers on two-day trips to Las Vegas in May 1996 and March and August 1997. From Las Vegas, they drove two hours for a tour of Yucca Mountain, which the House approved in October as a nuclear waste site.
“No matter what you do, people will perceive it a certain way,” said NEI spokesman Steve Kerekes. “If we could get every member of Congress to come out here, we’d like to do that.”
The trip-givers say they feel obligated to treat their guests well. “You hate to see people take time out of their schedules and just get a burger at McDonald’s or something like that,” Kerekes said.
But watch groups said if a trip is important enough to take, then it is important enough to be funded by taxpayers.
“When private interests are paying for travel, you have to wonder what is being bought and sold by the trip, and what interests are being served?” said Meredith McGehee, legislative director of Common Cause. “It shows that the laws need to be revisited.”