Being good sometimes comes with a cost.
Senate legislation would end one of the most beloved benefits of Congress, being able to hitch rides on corporate jets at heavily subsidized rates. Instead, senators would be required to pay far more expensive charter rates for private air travel.
That would apply both to official business, when senators skip airport lines to use private planes for trips to their districts or tour areas in their states, and to political or fundraising trips. The latter would come out of a lawmaker's campaign funds.
The House has gone further, barring its members from using official or campaign funds to pay for noncommercial, corporate jets. Lawmakers trying to reach that remote village, disaster site or campaign stop will have to turn to charter plane services.
The new travel rules are part of ethics and lobbying changes that Democrats, who campaigned on a promise of ending the "culture of corruption" in Washington, have made their first order of business after taking over control of Congress. The legislation would also bar lobbyists from paying for, or participating in, privately funded trips for lawmakers.
The travel provision was adopted by the Senate on an 88-9 vote, but the fate of the ethics and lobbying bill was uncertain after a dispute with Republicans forced Democrats to temporarily pull it from the Senate floor.
The change, when enacted, will be particularly painful for senators from large western states who depend on private aircraft to get them to areas inaccessible by road or commercial flights.
"I've used these airplanes a lot," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, sponsor of language that would require senators to pay charter rates for private travel rather than the current practice of reimbursing the plane owners with the equivalent of a first-class ticket.
He emphasized that never had a jet owner asked for a legislative favor in exchange for a ride. But in an age when the integrity of Congress is being questioned, "I've come to the realization that this practice presents a major perception problem" and lawmakers must pay the full charter rate, he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the travel rules were now a "huge loophole in the current gift rules." The average American, he said, "would love to fly around the country on very comfortable corporate-owned aircraft and only be charged the cost of a first-class ticket. It is a pretty good deal we have got going here."
It's also been a well-used perk. PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks congressional spending, said nine members of Congress spent more than $50,000 in campaign funds in 2006 to pay for the use of corporate jets. Leading the list was Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., who paid $165,724 to catch rides with corporate giants such as BellSouth Corp. and Federal Express Corp.
But Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, disputed "these images of fat-cat legislators sitting in cushy corporate aircraft."
She said that in Alaska, where 80 percent of towns and villages cannot be accessed by road, lawmakers trying to meet constituents have no choice but to catch rides on turboprops, seaplanes and other small private craft. "My options are so severely limited by this" new rule, she said, "that I don't know how I would operate."
She said she would have to pay some $15,000 for the full cost of a charter flight from Anchorage to the Aleutian Islands. A commercial flight to the Aleutian fishing town of Dutch Harbor, if available, costs $890 roundtrip.
"The taxpayer will foot the bill for the amendment, and the only real change will be more money in the pockets of those who own and operate the private planes," said Alaska's senior senator, Republican Ted Stevens.
If passed, he said, "my budget will run out in the first month or two of the calendar year. It would not permit us to travel to these remote communities throughout the year."
Stevens tried to carve out an exception for cases when there is no more than one daily flight between communities within a member's state and there was no conflict of interest involved. But he withdrew that proposal after Reid gave assurances that the government would pay the extra air travel costs.
The new restrictions also hit a snag in the House when Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a private pilot, wrote the House ethics committee complaining that the new House rules could be construed as banning private pilots from flying on the job. "This rule has an additional flaw in that it offers no exception for members using their personal funds for flying aircraft they personally own," he said.
John Santore, spokesman for Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, chair of the House Rules Committee, said the intention of the rule was clear, to prevent corporations and lobbyists from buying access to members of Congress and not to keep private pilots out of the cockpit.
In the Senate, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., a pilot with a half-century of experience, succeeded in revising the provision to exempt private pilots.
The Senate bill is S.1.
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