Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Congressional Travel, Ethics, and the Montana Senate Race

Good afternoon, politics fans. Today is primary day here in Montana, so if you haven't yet, get out and vote. Both parties have contested races, notably the guberatornial race for Republicans and the House race for the Democrats. My wife and I took our daughters this morning to introduce them to this wonderful American ritual, and tonight I'll be providing some commentary on KBZK.

The Washington Post recently had a nice piece on the Montana Senate race, emphasizing a theme I've been stressing all along: Senator Tester wants to make this race about him and his personal connection with Montana voters. Congressman Rehberg wants to emphasize Senator Tester's connection to the Democratic Party nationally and President Obama specifically. More broadly, the race is very much about who is the most like Montana--who is "one of us".

As a part of this meta-narrative, Tester's campaign recently launched a broadside against some of Congressman Rehberg's domestic and international travel in an attempt to paint Congressman Rehberg as rich, elitist, and out of touch. They posted a site, Rehberg Air, documenting 13 "luxurious" trips paid for with special interst dollars. Rehberg is rich, he's connected, and he's "not one of us" is the theme. You can check out the website and all of the voluminous background material for yourself.

Shortly after learning about the new microsite, my inbox had the Rehberg campaign's response. Some of these trips are paid for by an organization, the Montana World Trade Center, that promotes Montana products abroad and on whose board Rehberg sits (as do Senators Baucus and Tester). Montana's other Senator, Max Baucus, also participated in at least one of these trips with Congressman Rehberg and the Rehberg folks played this up repeatedly in their e-mail. Their response is pointed: Congressman Rehberg is doing his job for Montana by going on these trips. Here's a link to the Rehberg campaign response here.

What I'd like to do is to discuss a little bit about congressional travel and to provide some resources to Montana voters about the regulations concerning travel, both travel that is paid for by the federal government and travel that is paid for by outside organizations. It is important to note that both chambers have their own rules for travel, and generally speaking, the House has been at the forefront of Internet-based transparency efforts.

First, every member of Congress and U.S. Senator receives a set of funds to pay for their offices, their franked mail, and travel between Washington and their state/district. These funds are tightly regulated and controlled, and all expenses associated with them are reported to the Clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. I've spent FAR too much time with these various reports for my research (see my article, "Making a Good Impression" with Craig Goodman or "Who Franks", also with Craig Goodman behind subscriber walls here and here. Statements of Disbursement Reports for the House are now available via the web. The Senate followed suit and you can access Senate disbursements here. These documents will tell you how each member apportions their office allowances between salaries, travel home (you can get dates of travel home and the days members visit their states), and mass mailing sent back to the state/district. If you want to access earlier years and Congresses, you can do so via GPO Access, microfilm, and the physical hard copies available at U.S. Government Depositories (such as the University of Montana, which is a full depository, or Montana State University, which is a limited depository).

Second, there is official travel that is paid for and approved by either the House or the Senate both foreign and domestic. This could be travel in conjunction with committee hearings in another state or travel related to fact-finding abroad. This travel must be approved by the House or the Senate and reported. You can find records related to official House-sponsored travel abroad here.Senate travel, unfortunately, does not seem to be compiled by the Senate Office of Public Records online--but reports of officially-sponsored Senate travel abroad is available via the Congressional Record. Just do a search of  "foreign travel" of the Senate portion of the Record and you'll get a bunch of records popping up.

Third, there is travel that is related to the official duties of a member but paid for by private entities. This travel follows strict reporting requirements, must be approved in advance, and must be reported. An overview of the travel regulations concerning privately-paid travel may be found here, here, and here.

To summarize all of this, members of Congress travel frequently to perform their duties, but travel paid for by private organizations has been subject to abuse by some members--and was a key component of the Abramoff scandal which erupted in 2005 and 2006 (In fact, I'm reading Heist right now, a book about Abramoff and his sundry misdeeds). Congress has since tightened up its disclosure rules and largely restricted the ability of lobbyists to pay for the travel of members. It is also difficult, despite efforts on the behalf of transparency, to fully account for all the officially-related travel of members. According to a relatively recent CRS report available here, it is nearly impossible to know completely every trip a member takes in connection with their congressional duties and responsibilities. Perhaps a more streamlined process, similar to campaign finance reporting required of candidates, and one central depository would alleviate transparency concerns and would make it easier for members of the general public to know where and how members of Congress spend their time.

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