Times Union Editorial: "If members of Congress want to travel abroad, the government should pay the tab"
First published: Sunday, October 22, 2006
While Rep. John Sweeney, R-Clifton Park, seeks guidance from the House Ethics Committee on reporting his 2001 trip to the Northern Mariana Islands, many of his constituents are no doubt wondering what their congressman was doing 8,000 miles away in the Pacific in the first place. It's a question that should not be reserved for Mr. Sweeney alone, however. Many other senators and representatives go on jaunts far and wide, and with no apparent connection to serving the interests of the voters back home.
These ventures are commonly known as fact-finding trips. Lawmakers are invited by varied special interests to visit a locale to learn more about a company or country or other entity in hopes of winning their support for legislation, either in a committee or on the floor.
In Mr. Sweeney's case, he was there to deliver a speech to the Saipan Chamber of Commerce. The trip is now the center of controversy because it is unclear whether the chamber or the Marianas government paid for it. If it was the latter, as the congressman contends, then he was not required under federal guidelines to report it. But if the chamber footed the bill, as it claims it did, that would be considered private funding, which Mr. Sweeney is obligated to report. To add to the controversy, Mr. Sweeney was accompanied on the trip by a lobbyist hired by convicted Washington influence peddler Jack Abramoff.
Until the dust settles, it would be unfair to accuse Mr. Sweeney of impropriety. But it is totally fair -- indeed, overdue -- to say that this controversy would never have happened if there were strict rules governing trips by lawmakers. As we have said before, the U.S. taxpayers should pick up the tab if a trip is connected to government business. Lobbyists, the governments of other countries, business leaders or any other special interest should be forbidden to underwrite the costs to avoid even the appearance of trying to buy influence.
It's true that the definition of government business is a very open one in Washington. Many lawmakers may accept a paid-for trip and spend only a brief time on the business at hand, while enjoying what has all the appearances of an expense-paid vacation.
Obviously, if the taxpayers were picking up the tab, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for members of Congress to justify such expenditures in the future. Which is why such a rule is needed, and needed now.