Power Trips: Minnesota members of Congress defend travelby Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
In the last few years, Minnesota members of Congress have traveled to Hawaii, Alaska, Israel, South Africa, China, Germany, Turkey, Mozambique and other spots around the globe. Taxpayers didn't foot the bill for these trips. Private interest groups did.
A recent report by American Public Media, the Center for Public Integrity and Northwestern University's Medill News Service found members of Congress and their staff took 23,000 privately-funded trips between 2000 and June of last year at a cost of nearly $50 million. Some members of Minnesota's Congressional delegation say the trips are valuable, and a better alternative than traveling on taxpayer money. Critics say the trips should be banned.
St. Paul, Minn. — Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman leads the Minnesota delegation in privately-funded travel. The report found he and members of his staff took a total of 94 trips over five and a half years, at a total cost of $176,000.
Coleman himself took 41 trips, including a $20,000 trip to Armenia with his wife. The purpose of the trip, as listed on his Senate travel disclosure form, was to assess Armenian progress on its Millenium Challenge compact, which is designed to reduce rural poverty.
Coleman took 14 trips to speak to Republican groups, several to speak to Jewish organizations, and one to appear on the cable TV program, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Coleman said all of his trips are listed on his congressional Web site. He said his travel has been approved by the Senate Ethics Committee, and he doesn't have a problem with privately-funded trips.
"You could have the taxpayers pay for everything. I don't think that makes sense," Coleman said. "I don't think that we have to put it on the taxpayers. If the Aspen Institute wants to hold a forum on Islam, wants to hold a forum on Mexico in Mexico, and I think it makes sense for me there, I'll participate in that."
Coleman took three trips, two to Mexico and one to Spain, sponsored by the Aspen Institute, the top private sponsor of Congressional travel. The Washington, D.C.-based group bills itself as nonpartisan, and holds seminars on public policy. Coleman said the institute is a little too liberal for him, but said its conferences are a chance to hear from top scholars.
Minnesota's other U.S. Senator, Democrat Mark Dayton, is at the other end of the travel spectrum. Dayton took only one privately-funded trip to Alaska in 2001, and said if he would have known the trip was partially funded by private interest groups, he would have refunded the travel expenses.
Dayton supports a ban on privately-funded travel, and said it should instead be paid for by Congressional offices or campaign budgets.
"Some of it is really beyond the pale," said Dayton. "You've got committee staff and members, both House and Senate, both sides of the aisle, traveling around the world, and having it paid for by private parties who have vested interests in decisions that those staff people are influencing."
Dayton said the privately-funded trips are an obvious effort by interest groups to influence public officials.
Minnesota's eight House members vary widely in their privately-funded trips. Republican Jim Ramstad took only one trip, to speak at the Betty Ford Center in California. DFLer James Oberstar took 26 trips, including a $9,000 trip to Paris and Stuttgart, Germany last year with his wife to attend a Congressional roundtable.
Oberstar's communications director, Mary Kerr, said Oberstar had laryngitis and wasn't available for an interview. Kerr said Oberstar took the Paris-Stuttgart trip because he co-chairs the Congressional French caucus. And she said most of Oberstar's trips involve speeches to transportation organizations, since he's the ranking Democrat on the transportation committee.
Republican Gil Gutknecht took fewer trips than Oberstar, but his office was top among Minnesota House members in privately-funded travel. Gutknecht and his staff took 57 trips at a cost of more than $110,000. Gutknecht traveled to Germany, China, Alaska, Florida and other places in his 18 trips, and said he can defend all of them.
"The bulk of the trips have been paid for by foundations," Gutknecht said. "Now there are some other organizations, for example, the International Dairy Food Association. They invited me to speak at their annual conference. Unfortunately or fortunately, they have those conferences in some very nice places. But the question isn't whether I should go or not, the question is who should pay."
Gutknecht said he doesn't think taxpayers should fund the trips.
The recent report compiling congressional travel has shed a spotlight on the issue, and increased calls for tighter controls over what some consider junkets. But Jim Morris, who directed the Power Trips project for the Center for Public Integrity, said there doesn't seem to be much appetite for change among congressional leaders, who have been big beneficiaries of privately-funded travel.
"Right now, the trips are reviewed by the House and Senate ethics committees. So Congress is basically policing itself," Morris said. "And you can imagine how that goes. That would explain why nobody, or virtually nobody, has gotten into any hot water for any of these trips."
Morris said the number of privately-funded trips increased over the five and a half years studied in the report.