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January 31, 2006
Isn't This What Got Abramoff In Trouble?

Amid stories of Congressional influence using expense-paid junkets and gifts, the AP reports on an odd meeting yesterday in which it paints lobbying efforts involving both in a much different light. A group of rich New Orleans residents, irritated that most of Congress has not yet come to the devastated city to see the destruction for themselves, passed out bonbons and offered all-expenses-paid trips to the Crescent City to get more money for reconstruction:

"You ask us who we are? I'll tell you. We're nobody," said the handsomely coifed blonde from New Orleans. Her self-effacing demeanor disarmed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who smiled and appeared relaxed as Anne Milling, 65, moved in for the kill.

"We're no one. We're a group of nonpolitical, nonpartisan ladies who are passionate about New Orleans. We're mothers and housewives and businesswomen — and we can't believe that 87 percent of the House of Representatives and 70 percent of the Senate have not come to see the devastation."

Five months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, toppling New Orleans' aging levees and submerging 80 percent of the city, only 55 representatives and 30 senators have visited the decimated city. Pelosi is not among them.

Underneath the elegant conference room table in her House office, the California Democrat clenched her hands in her lap. She bit her lower lip. But Milling pressed on, and soon Pelosi was accepting a box of bonbons and an invitation for a 36-hour, expense-paid trip to New Orleans. "I'll be there," she said before the women walked out.

At least she agreed to go without conditions. Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), whom CQ readers last saw in May 2004 chewing out one of his constituents for daring to criticize him, told the women that he wouldn't come unless they rounded up at least four Republicans first. Does Stark get lonely without GOP company?

All of this sounds quite noble, and I'm sure the Women of the Storm group have no nefarious purpose other than to maximize the amount and speed of relief to their devastated city. Nonetheless, they represent a lobbying effort that aims to get government money, and they're offering elected representatives expenses-paid travel to convince them to increase the funding for their pet project. This lobbying technique differs little from offering trips for other purposes, such as Indian gaming, nuclear-waste disposal, and so on. It's a technique that two weeks ago, in the first flush of the Abramoff scandal, people demanded that Congress end immediately. Now, however, because a group of elegant (rich) ladies from New Orleans offered trips to Congress to visit New Orleans, the AP never even notes that this is a lobbying effort.

In my opinion, these Congressional representatives should pay their own way to New Orleans and not take a dime from the victims of Katrina. I don't think there's anything corrupt in the offer, but if we're drawing ethics rules, we need to be consistent. Either expenses-paid travel is out of bounds or it isn't, and if it's ethical to take money from hurricane victims to perform one's job -- the argument that politicians make when defending travel and the argument made by the Women of the Storm in their offer -- then it should be just as ethical to receive travel from other lobbyists as well.

Let the ladies keep their money. Pelosi and her peers can pay for a flight to New Orleans and a hotel room for an overnight stay. Pete Stark can pay for the four Republicans without whom he seems unable to travel.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 31, 2006 5:32 AM

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