It appears that despite rule changes regarding lawmakers taking trips sponsored by lobbyists, the practice is still alive and well - and growing.
Ethics rules approved four years ago bar lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights at the expense of corporations, unions and others that employ lobbyists. The changes were prompted by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff's 2006 admission that he provided gifts and luxury trips to lawmakers and other government officials in exchange for official favors. However, the House and Senate imposed few limits on travel funded by non-profits, which now are funding dozens of lawmaker trips each month.
"These are the travel junkets of yore," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which lobbied for the 2007 travel restrictions. "It's a recurring situation. You get some good reforms on the books, and after a few years, people start trying to get around them."
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has the biggest travel tab so far this year for any lawmaker, more than $47,000, according to MoneyLine's data. It includes three trips sponsored by the non-profit Aspen Institute to San Juan, Puerto Rico; Barcelona, Spain; and Banff, Canada. Topics included energy-security issues and "policy challenges in the Muslim world."
"The meetings were not at taxpayer expense," Cooper said in a statement. "They were working meetings about issues important to the nation."
The price tag on the South Africa and Botswana trips ran as high as $30,000, records show.
The travel to southern Africa gave Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., the chance to learn more about the economic, political and health conditions of the countries, along with conservation programs to help "future decision making on Capitol Hill," Crenshaw's spokeswoman, Barbara Riley, said in a statement.
The more things change...