Lawmakers Still Get Free Ride New Gift Law Doesn't Stop Special Interests from Paying for Trips

Article excerpt

Dozens in Congress have found respite from the capital's cold, snowy winter in Las Vegas, Honolulu, Israel and the Bahamas - compliments of special interests.

Despite a new law limiting gifts to lawmakers, fact-finding travel is still allowed, although it must be reported more quickly. In most cases, the travel is paid for by organizations seeking a sympathetic hearing on Capitol Hill.

Since Jan. 1, about 150 such trips have been reported by members and staff of the House and Senate. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call totaled the combined value of all the trips at more than $118,000.

For freshman Rep. Jon Christensen, R-Neb., the destinations were speaking engagements in Las Vegas, Houston and Orlando, Fla. Total estimated value of the travel: $2,580.

In Houston, Christensen was joined by Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Calvin Dooley, D-Calif., to address the National Association of Home Builders. At least two congressional aides also attended the convention in late January.

"From a special interest point of view, it is very helpful to have a lawmaker come and speak before your group," said Ellen Miller, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "It's another way of gaining access, and therefore influence, over a lawmaker."

A spokesman for Christensen, Chris Hull, said the congressman's trips were for legislative business related to his work on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. In Orlando, "he was on the ground for about two hours," Hull said. In Houston, Christensen was on a tax panel, and in Las Vegas, he met with electronics industry officials about their tax problems, the aide said. …