Officials Shouldn't Be Beholden to Special Interest Groups (Gannett Newspapers)

The problem isn’t that members of Congress travel too much. In fact, they probably should travel more. The issue is who pays for the travel.

The usual defense of privately financed travel is that it saves taxpayer money. Think again. As any experienced Washington hand can tell you, all of us pay. And pay, and pay again. The special interests that can afford to underwrite the trips get “face time” with members of Congress and their staff. This “face time” is golden and translates into valuable access-and-influence. This, in turn, translates into skewed public policies that too often favor those who pay for the travel.

That is the reason private interests forked over more than $3.7 million for free “educational opportunities” last year, a 10-year high. It is an effective lobbying tool.

These nonprofits — usually affiliated with groups with a distinct public policy agenda — wouldn’t be spending this kind of money if they didn’t think it was an effective investment.

Spending some quality time with elected officials on the company jet gives these well-heeled interests an invaluable chance to bond with the member. They show the well-placed official what they want them to see and put their spin on the issue. Even if they don’t talk business, the likelihood that a member will return the phone call or take the meeting of the travel funder is at about the same level as their good fundraisers — who, of course, are many of the same people. And imagine how different a trip to a cigarette factory would be if it was arranged and paid for by the Tobacco Institute as opposed to the American Cancer Society.

Just as it makes no sense to have the salaries, office expenses and equipment paid for by special interests, it makes no sense to privately finance official travel. Currently, Apple is not allowed to be the corporate underwriter and provide congressional offices with government computers and phones, even though one might argue it would save taxpayer dollars. Why? Because there is clear recognition that the government should not run based on insider deals with powerful interests or friends.

There is no logic in treating travel related to official business differently.

If privately financed travel were outlawed, members of Congress would still fear the news story accusing them of taking a taxpayer-financed junket. But there is a solution: effective transparency, with members taking full responsibility for their travel and publicly disclosing the trip’s agenda with a full accounting of costs.

For many years now, private interests haven’t been allowed to pay for the vacation travel of members of Congress and their staffs. Private payment for travel related to official business poses the same problems and should be stopped. If the American people expect our elected officials to have our interests foremost in their hearts and minds, they should be beholden to us, the people for whom they are working, not the special interest underwriting their junkets.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., and heads McGehee Strategies, a public interest consulting business. This opinion piece was originally published in a number of Gannett newspapers on April 13, 2014. To read it, click here.