In one of the more innocuous trips Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Evanston took in the past six years, Comedy Central paid $480 to fly her to New York on June 4, 2007.
What did Comedy Central get out of the deal? A personality to help fill out 30 minutes (and presumably drive ratings) on The Colbert Report. What did Schakowsky get out of the deal? National exposure and a little bit of fun (not to mention the chance to be blessed with the legendary Stephen "Colbert bump").
Nothing wrong with that. It was a straightforward exchange with each side getting something out of the transaction. Which is the point we've been trying to make about privately funded Congressional travel. It's not always so benign.
Each side gets something out of the deal. The member of Congress gets something -- free travel, often for relatives as well as the elected official. And the travel sponsor gets something -- often influence on behalf of its vested interest or at the very least, promotion for it.
We reflected on this a week ago in the wake of the ethics investigation that's been launched over funding for a trip Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton took to Taiwan. A lot of readers -- including some in Roskam's office -- took that editorial as a partisan and unfair attack on Roskam.
This interpretation of the editorial struck us then, and strikes us still, as unfortunate and oddly defensive. We emphasized then that we are in no position, at this point at least, to judge whether Roskam broke any laws or rules and that we leave that determination to others. We went out of our way to acknowledge that Washington could have cynical motives for putting his trip under the microscope.
If Roskam broke laws or rules, he should pay the reasonable consequence. But that's a possibility and a story for another day. For now, we're much more concerned with the tradition of Congressional globe-trotting altogether.
It is not a partisan issue.
Roskam, a staunchly conservative Republican, does it. Schakowsky, a fiercely liberal Democrat, does it too. We question it in both cases.
And in the cases of the large number of other members of Congress who travel casually on a vested interests' dime, and who take the spouse along on that vested interests' dime too.
Are some of these trips worthwhile? No doubt. Are some of them innocuous? The Colbert Report trip is a case in point. But many are little more than family vacations. Even when some work is woven in, they're still an opportunity primarily for sightseeing.
Even worse, many of these trips are out-and-out influence peddling. And members of Congress have become so jaded, so used to the system and its perks, that they don't even recognize the influence peddling before them.
The rules are too lax. The traditions are too entrenched.
It is time that all that changes.