Commentary

Don’t Tighten Travel Rules

By Patrick Basham
This article originally appeared in USA Today on May 1, 2005.
Calls for tightening congressional travel rules to forbid legislators from taking trips paid for by non-profit organizations and private corporations are misguided.

Current ethics rules sufficiently govern legislators’ behavior and enable individual transgressions to come to light. Lawmakers aren’t exactly given carte blanche. The rules detailed in the 71-page “Gifts and Travel” handbook forbid legislators from accepting trips paid for by lobbyists or foreign government agents. Subsidized trips are limited to a week in length, and legislators must submit disclosure forms detailing benefits received.

Private sponsors’ motives are no worse than those of their public counterparts. Private interests seek to educate congressional guests while propagating a particular point of view. However, when Pentagon bureaucrats, for example, send legislators to view new weaponry or visit bases and combat theaters, they, too, exercise a propaganda function. They seek to protect their budgets and to make their department or agency a more sympathetic recipient of public funds.

Government-funded fact-finding is neither ethically purer nor more selfless than privately sponsored travel.

The assumption that the relationship between lawmakers and private sponsors is inherently corrupt (subsidized travel leads to legislative or regulatory favoritism) exists without supporting evidence. A link between a lawmaker’s travel and legislative behavior is rarely established. If these trips “buy” anything, it’s access to politicians, not influence on policymaking. The importance of such access, however, is overestimated.

Research finds that private money follows votes far more often than votes follow money. Legislators’ voting records reflect their ideology, partisanship and assessment of their constituents’ interests.

The mere appearance of impropriety, absent evidence of wrongdoing, is insufficient rationale for harsher rules. In a self-regulating political marketplace, it’s an individual lawmaker’s responsibility to accept the political risk inherent in accepting travel subsidies from private sources. Lawmakers may or may not choose to accept an invitation. The choice should be theirs, similarly the risks and rewards of their decisions.

Stricter travel rules aren’t necessary. Enforcement of existing rules can protect the public interest. Anything more is overkill.

Patrick Basham is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.