Wash. Post, other outlets ignored relevant statistics to frame problem of congressional travel as wholly bipartisan

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

In an article based on information from the Center for Public Integrity's recent analysis of privately funded congressional travel, Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey Birnbaum largely depicted the issue of members accepting privately funded trips as a bipartisan one. But Birnbaum omitted several pertinent findings that show greater participation by Republican lawmakers and staff than by Democrats.

In a June 6 article based on information from the Center for Public Integrity's (CPI) recent analysis of privately funded congressional travel, Washington Post staff writer Jeffrey Birnbaum largely depicted the issue of members accepting privately funded trips as a bipartisan one. But Birnbaum omitted several pertinent findings that show greater participation by Republican lawmakers and staff than by Democrats. Specifically, Birnbaum reported that the 10 congressional offices that took the most privately sponsored trips were all in the House of Representatives but did not note that all 10 offices were Republican. He also reported the CPI finding that General Atomics, the largest corporate sponsor of congressional travel, had arranged 86 trips for lawmakers and their staff, but he did not report that 70 of those trips -- more than 80 percent -- were taken by Republican lawmakers and staff members. Overall, in four out of the five metrics CPI used to analyze the volume of privately funded congressional travel -- including the two mentioned above -- Republicans outnumbered Democrats -- a fact not presented by Birnbaum. Reports on the CPI study by The New York Times, Knight Ridder, and CBS also glossed over several of these findings.

CPI conducted the study, titled "Power Trips," in conjunction with American Public Media and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The groups compiled and analyzed data on all privately funded travel accepted by members of Congress and their staffs between Jan.1, 2000, and June 30, 2005. They released their key findings on June 5, which included their five indicies of frequency and cost of congressional travel:

  • Members of Congress who have accepted more than $120,000 in privately funded travel
  • Congressional offices that have accepted more than $350,000 in privately funded travel
  • Congressional offices that have accepted more than 200 privately funded trips
  • The 10 most expensive privately funded trips taken by members of congress or their staff
  • Congressional offices that have accepted trips sponsored by General Atomics

According to CPI's data, Republicans outnumbered Democrats -- and in one case constitute the entire data set -- in all but one of these categories, that of members taking more than $120,000 in trips.

Apart from several direct quotes from representatives of members of Congress and companies that funded trips, Birnbaum's June 6 article consisted entirely of information included in CPI's June 5 press releases on the study (here, here, and here), as well as the limited data provided on its website. Just as CPI did not highlight the partisan tilt of their findings, Birnbaum wrote that the study "illustrates how widespread the practice has become, for both Democrats and Republicans." But while Birnbaum touched on each of the five categories listed above, he failed to note that Republicans outnumbered Democrats in all but one category. In some cases, he directly addressed these results, but omitted reference to the party affiliation of the congressional offices involved.

For instance, Birnbaum reported that the "10 congressional offices that accepted more than 200 privately sponsored trips each were all in the House." But he failed to mention that each of these was a Republican office -- a fact clearly presented on the CPI website.

In his June 5 article on CPI's findings, Knight Ridder staff writer James Kuhnhenn similarly reported that the "top 10 travelers identified in the study are all members of the House of Representatives." But while he went on to note that the list included House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH), he ignored the fact that the 10 offices were all Republican.

Birnbaum devoted several paragraphs of his June 6 piece to General Atomics, a California-based defense contractor that spent more on congressional travel than any other corporation: approximately $660,000 on congressional travel over the five and a half years. Birnbaum quoted the study's finding that the company had arranged "86 trips for legislators, aides and their spouses from 2000 to mid-2005." But he ignored the fact, noted by CPI in a press release on the corporation's spending, that "three of the General Atomics trips were taken by Republican members of Congress, 67 by aides to Republican lawmakers and 16 by aides to Democrats." In his June 5 article, Kuhnhenn also noted the 86 trips while ignoring that the large majority of them were taken by Republican lawmakers or their aides.

Birnbaum did report one marker used by CPI to measure the number and cost of trips that showed Republicans outnumbering Democrats: that "[o]f the two dozen congressional offices on which private trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were Republican." That information was coupled with Birnbaurm's report of the finding that Democrats accounted for 17 of the "25 individual lawmakers who accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel."

A June 6 New York Times article on the CPI report by reporter Kate Phillips was also misleading on the subject of who accepted trips paid by General Atomics. Not only did she report, as Birnbaum did, that General Atomics had sponsored the 86 trips -- without noting that 80 percent of those were taken by Republicans -- but she also reported that aides to both former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) -- since convicted of bribery -- and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (NV) went on General Atomics trips.

On the June 5 broadcast of CBS' Evening News, Capitol Hill correspondent Sharyl Attkisson -- like Birnbaum, Kuhnhenn, and Phillips -- reported on the 86 trips provided by General Atomics without noting the party breakdown. Further, Attkisson highlighted the $27,000 trip to Australia accepted by Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon's (R-CA) chief of staff without noting that McKeon is a Republican.

From the June 5 broadcast of CBS' Evening News:

RUSS MITCHELL (anchor): Sometimes, it is surprising there are ever enough members of Congress around to vote on anything. A new report today shows many jet-setting members and their key aides have taken thousands of freebie trips since 2000, nearly 500 of those trips to Paris, Italy, and Hawaii, courtesy of big business and other groups looking to influence legislation. Here's our Capitol Hill correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

ATTKISSON: Want to take that trip of a lifetime? Maybe bring along your spouse, all expenses paid? You might get the chance if you were a member of Congress, or even just worked for one. They've taken $50 million worth of private-paid trips in just over five and a half years. That's according to analysts from the Center for Public Integrity who poured through mounds of congressional travel disclosure forms.

HELENA BENGTSSON (CPI assistant database editor): We scanned over 26,000 documents for this.

ATTKISSON: The trips are officially called "educational work trips," but they just happen to be to some of the world's best vacation destinations.

WENDELL RAWLS (CPI acting executive director): Hawaii and Antigua, and at The Greenbrier, and Florence, and Paris.

ATTKISSON: The center's top watchdog, Wendell Rawls, says the travel is legal but ethically suspect, since it can appear congressional influence is for sale. Take San Diego defense contractor General Atomics, makers of the Predator robotic spy plane and a top corporate sponsor of congressional trips. The center says the company stepped up spending on Congress and their staff as it stepped up sales pitches for the Predator at home and abroad.

General Atomics paid for 86 trips over five and a half years worth $660,000. One took congressional staffers and guests to Rome, Venice, Bellagio, and Florence. That same month, an excursion to Australia with stops in Melbourne, Cairns, Canberra, and Sydney. Those along for the ride included Congressman Buck McKeon's chief of staff, Robert Cochran. He brought his wife Kelli. General Atomics picked up their $27,000 tab. Cochran's travel form says the trip was "to meet and discuss Unmanned Aerial Vehicle issues with Australian officials."

Can we assume private interests really think they're getting something out of this?

RAWLS: Well, they wouldn't be paying for the travel if they didn't think it was helping them.

ATTKISSON: As General Atomics hosted more travel, the Predator became a successful staple of the war in Iraq. Contracts skyrocketed from a mere $22 million to a card request for 347 million. The company wouldn't agree to an interview but tells CBS News the paid trips "foster debate regarding our initiatives and technologies. We have to communicate to the congressional people who have the purse strings on the budget. They have to be convinced."

And if you thought Congress was reforming these types of meetings, they are not. They have repeatedly rejected bans on private travel, and nothing in any current proposals would change that. Russ.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, CBS, The New York Times, Knight Ridder
Person
Jeff Birnbaum
Show/Publication
CBS Evening News
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