When I used to come to Washington, D.C., before I lived here, my host for the weekend often had charge a big, shaggy dog that belonged to a prominent member of Congress. The dog’s name: Junket.
Junkets are nothing new. But they have always been questionable, and today, with elected officials too often behaving as if they are members of a privileged caste, these freebies are even more so. That is why this story from USA Today is so irritating:
Four years after Congress imposed restrictions on travel funded by outside groups, federal lawmakers are frequent fliers again, taking 415 privately funded trips between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 – a nearly 75% jump in the number of trips they took during the same period in 2010, records show.
The value of the trips exceeds $3.1 million, making it the most expensive year of travel since Congress enacted ethics rules in 2007 aimed at clamping down on lobbyist-funded trips, according to a USA TODAY review of congressional travel records compiled by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine.
Fun Fact: Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., reportedly is the current Junket King, having racked up trips valued at $47, 000 this year. Cooper enjoyed three trips sponsored by the Aspen Institute to San Juan, Puerto Rico; Barcelona, Spain; and Banff, Canada. On these trips the topics under discussion included energy-security issues and "policy challenges in the Muslim world” (maybe that was in Barcelona, which was under Muslim rule for 200 years?).
Look, I don’t want to be churlish. These aren’t taxpayer-funded trips, after all. And I’m not against the odd freebie. So why am I so bothered?
People tend to get riled up over these trips and perks when they believe that influence is being bought. The last round of reforms came after lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted to having received “official favors” from lawmakers on whom he showered gifts.
And would you, Gentle Reader, be stalwart enough to be impervious to a wee request from somebody who had just footed the bill for your memorable 10-day junket to Botswana and South Africa that included two nights at the Shamwari Game Reserve, described on its website as the "pinnacle of private game reserves"? Nice perk for members of Congress (and their spouses!) from the kindly Conservation Caucus Foundation, a non-profit with ties to environmental groups.
That kind of corruption is always lurking. But it’s a different kind of corruption that bothers me. An insidious kind of moral decay can set in when you become the kind of person who routinely accepts $30,000 “free” trips (the reported pricetag for the Botswana-South Africa jaunt).
People who get used to living the high life on somebody else’s dollar can forget what things cost. They join a new class of elected officials, a class with its own interests (thank heavens, I won’t have to depend on Obamacare!). In short, they get above themselves. Worse, they get above their constituents.
That so many officials are happy to take these lavish trips is indicative of a deeply flawed political class.