Lobby Groups Bankroll Congress Trips
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WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Sept. 11 attacks didn’t stop members of Congress from traveling at the expense of special interests.
Lawmakers were treated to an aviation industry meeting in Hawaii, the Breeder’s Cup races in New York and a pesticide conference at the renowned Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, all since Sept. 11.
Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., was among lawmakers who made it to the Greenbrier conference, but in one of the more unusual pieces of travel Berry also journeyed with two congressional colleagues to the Abbey of Gethsemani monastery near Louisville, Ky.
Berry’s room had a bed and a desk where he could write in longhand his spiritual reflections about the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead of hobnobbing with business executives eager to discuss legislation, he prayed with monks _ many of whom had taken a vow of silence.
The traveling lawmakers said they took to heart President Bush’s message to return to normal business in the aftermath of the attacks.
``I don’t remember canceling anything,″ said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who just 10 days after the suicide hijackings took trips to Gulfport, Miss., and New Orleans paid for by the poultry and crop protection industries.
``We weren’t going to let terrorists shut down our government,″ Cochran said.
While lawmakers defend privately paid travel for speeches and fact-finding as essential to their jobs, the citizens’ lobby Common Cause contends that most such trips since Sept. 11 have been little more than junkets.
``Our nation is at war, we’re in a recession, and the continental U.S. has been attacked for the first time since the Civil War. It sends the wrong message, to say the least, for members of Congress to take luxury vacations on someone else’s tab,″ said Scott Harshbarger, president of the group.
The Associated Press reviewed about 100 post-Sept. 11 congressional travel records for trips financed by private interests.
Among groups paying lawmakers’ expenses were the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Bankers Association, American Gas Association, Amtrak, British Airways, CSX Corp. and the National Rifle Association.
Congress changed its rules a decade ago to eliminate payments to lawmakers for speeches, but members still can have all their expenses paid when making a speech or traveling on a fact-finding mission. Destinations range from America’s finest resorts or sporting events to the occasional Spartan digs.
Berry and four colleagues spoke to CropLife America at the 6,500-acre Greenbrier, which boasts of three championship golf courses, luxurious rooms and first-class cuisine.
The pesticide trade association picked the tab for the three-night stay, which ranged from about $2,000 to more than $3,400 for each the four lawmakers, some of whom brought spouses.
A few weeks later, the Faith and Politics Institute paid for Berry’s hermit-like stay at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Robin Hayes, R-N.C., also attended.
Because crop protection is so important to farmers in his district, Berry said he would have attended the pesticide association’s conference if it had been at the monastery instead of the Greenbrier.
``There’s nothing special about the Greenbrier,″ he said. ``But the retreat, I’d recommend to anyone.″
Four House members went to New York in late October to speak with representatives of the American Horse Council and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. While there, Reps. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky., Larry Combest, R-Texas, and Ken Calvert, R-Calif., attended the Breeder’s Cup races at Belmont Park.
``It was an opportunity for them to lobby me on horse issues,″ said Stenholm, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.
``We do quite a few of these type of events. I never apologize. I had never been to the Breeder’s Cup,″ said Stenholm, who previously has taken privately financed trips built around the Indianapolis 500, the Super Bowl and the World Series.
Eight members of Congress escaped the East coast winter earlier this month for an airline industry conference in Hawaii. They included Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Reps. Martin Sabo, D-Minn., Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., Hal Rogers, R-Ky., John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., and Sonny Callahan, R-Ala.
All are members of committees with an interest in aviation, and Murray and Rogers chair the subcommittees that write transportation spending bills.
DeFazio spokeswoman Kristie Greco said her boss attended ``for a frank dialogue with airport managers and airline executives.″ DeFazio has been a sharp critic of the airline industry, voting against an industry bailout after Sept. 11 and accusing airlines of dragging their feet on security and safety matters.
Tiahrt spokesman Chuck Knapp said his boss met with Airbus officials at the conference to solicit support for the National Institute of Aviation Research in his district.
Some special interest groups that paid for congressional travel after Sept. 11 said they considered postponing or canceling the conferences.
``We wrestled with the notion of whether to cancel or not,″ said Jay Vroom, president of CropLife America, but few of the association’s companies wanted to postpone the event that has been at the Greenbrier for 30 years.
Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., said he went to the CropLife conference because a major employer in his district was there. Did he consider canceling? ``I didn’t even give it a thought,″ he said.
On the Net:
Tables, examples of special-interest paid travel: http://wire.ap.org