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Rarefied air: Arizona lawmakers took 21 privately funded trips

WASHINGTON -- Arizona's House and Senate members took an average of just under two privately sponsored trips since the start of this Congress, ninth most in the nation.

An analysis of data on such travel, from the Clerk of the House and from the government watchdog website LegiStorm, showed that Arizona's 11 delegation members took an average of 1.9 trips since January 2013.

But those trips were relatively cheap. The average trip for an Arizona delegation member during the period was $8,144.36, the 21st-highest when compared to other states' delegations.

Maine's three delegation members topped the list for number of trips, at an average of seven each, while Oklahoma was tops for the cost of the trips its members took, at an average of $18,035.43. The trips ranged from conferences around the corner to fact-finding trips to Israel, Colombia and Turkey, among other locations.

Trips financed by private groups are criticized by some as just another way for interest groups to engage in "influence peddling on Capitol Hill."

But members of Congress defend the travel, which is funded without tax dollars, as beneficial for lawmakers trying to grapple with complex issues. And supporters of such trips note that reporting requirements guarantee transparency.

Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, said "because there's transparency and because there's great oversight by the ethics committee ... these trips are valuable for members to take."

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said disclosure of these trips is important "so you know who's influencing a member of Congress."

"Often these trips are very expensive and very lavish and at the very least, they provide access to members of Congress, and frequently those sponsoring the travel want something," she said.

A furor erupted earlier this month when the House Committee on Ethics dropped privately funded travel from the list of things that members have to report on their personal financial disclosure forms. Lawmakers would still have been required to report such travel to the Clerk of the House, but the committee reversed itself soon after objections were raised.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, said it is important that it is as easy as possible for the public to find information on trips because of the influence privately funded travel can provide. He said "privately sponsored travel is one of the most effective means of influence peddling on Capitol Hill."

But Sloan said that some trips might be good.

"All trips aren't bad ... Paris with a very low meeting schedule, that seems like a boondoggle, but on the other hand, if members are regulating meat-packing plants, it's probably good for them to see a meat-packing plant," she said. "So it depends on what the trips are."

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said in an emailed statement: "Witnessing events and locations from the front lines is always more informative than just reading about it. Though I have rarely participated in any private travel, I know other members of Congress who believe it has been beneficial."

But he agreed with Pastor and the others that "privately funded travel should be publicly disclosed."

Pastor also said that privately sponsored trips can be a valuable opportunity for lawmakers to socialize.

"It allows members of Congress to be able to socialize and meet and be able to know each other, which is greatly needed in today's Congress," he said.

But an analysis of the data showed many trips sponsored by partisan groups. The Heritage Foundation has sponsored more trips for Arizona lawmakers during the last year and a half than any other organization, for example, funding six of the 21 trips taken by Arizona lawmakers since the start of 2013.

Whatever the benefits may be, Holman said the potential for abuse demands close scrutiny of such trips.

"It's a very powerful influence-peddling tool to buy someone a luxurious vacation and, after, you would go back to them and ask for them to vote a certain way or help promote a certain government contract," he said.

"There is a sense of obligation to do so. That's the whole purpose of privately sponsored travel in the first place."

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