July 25 — Just because something’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right, no matter what the House Ethics Committee says.
This is the same committee, after all, that tried earlier this month to make it more difficult for citizens to find out which lawmakers are accepting freebies for themselves, their families and staffs; how often; and the identity of the private organizations or foreign governments picking up the tab.
The moral watchdogs quietly did away with a decades-old requirement that lawmakers reveal private trips on annual personal financial forms, The Associated Press reported. The information would still be available through the House clerk’s office — just not on the easily accessible disclosure forms.
The committee reinstated the rule after good government groups rightly howled.
What were these lawmakers thinking?
It hasn’t been 10 years yet since the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal shocked even Washington insiders who thought they’d seen it all. The lobbyist — who lavishly wooed lawmakers and aides with gifts, entertainment and travel — went to jail after a long investigation that also ensnared a lawmaker, congressional aides and White House staffer and other lobbyist.
As a result, the House imposed new requirements banning registered lobbyists from being involved in travel and generally restricting free trips to short stays, The Associated Press noted.
Even Abramoff, who was released in 2010 after serving 43 months, criticized the Ethics Committee’s attempt to limit disclosure as a step backward.
Of course, not every privately funded lawmaker trip has a lobbyist behind it trying to curry favor.
But it has happened often enough — preferably behind the scenes, according to Abramoff — that lawmakers should be doing everything possible to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
Yet House members’ privately funded travel actually is on the rise — from 1,012 in 2008 to 1,685 last year, according to The Associated Press.
The Pennsylvania delegation’s trips jumped from 17 to 47 during the same time. So far this year, our lawmakers and their staff accepted 41 trips, ranging from $20,000 in business-class airline tickets to Japan to $300-a-night hotel rooms for congressional staff at a luxurious Las Vegas casino resort.
Rep. Scott Perry, R-York County, deserves credit for not taking any privately funded trips in the past year, even though he’s been offered several.
In fact, only four of his staff members have taken just four trips since he took office a year and a half ago —and all were funded by The Congressional Institute, a nonprofit organization that hosts several staff development conferences for congressional staff members throughout the year.
In addition to avoiding the appearance of wrongdoing, Perry points out another good reason for avoiding such trips: His work is in Washington and the 4th District.
“That’s time away from your constituents, from your family,” he said. “You’ve got to judge the value for what you’re going to get from being away.”
That’s the right attitude.