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The News and Observer reports (06-13-06) that congressmen and their staffs have taken $50 million in gifts from private organizations. How? By accepting free trips to everywhere from Jakarta to Cancun. How many trips? 23,000 over the last five years.

North Carolina congressmen and their staffs took a million dollars in ‘gifts’. For 470 trips. Congressman Howard Coble’s chief of staff, Ed McDonald, who accepted $34,000 in ‘gifts’, explained his 24 trips this way: “Members of Congress and their staffs need to know what’s going on in the world.” McDonald learned what’s going on in Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco.

Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte took $88,000 in gifts, more than any other North Carolina congressman. Watt took 22 trips over five and a half years. He learned what was going on in Barcelona, Cancun (one of the world’s trouble spots), Havana and Lausanne, Switzerland. That’s not unlike a free vacation every three months. Watt told The News and Observer, “I’m not apologizing for a single trip I ever took…”

Maybe there is someone out there somewhere paying to send congressmen to Paris or Barcelona out of the goodness of their heart. But was the “Chinese International Economic Cooperation Association,” which spent $31,000 to give ‘gifts’ to N.C. congressmen (or their staffs), interested in trade bills? Was the “Nuclear Energy Institute,” which gave congressmen gifts of $60,000 (12 trips at $5000 each), interested in legislation? Its spokesman told The News and Observer, “We’re always going to try to convince Congress of the worthwhileness of what we’re pushing.”

I am sure some of these ‘gifts’ did pay for educational trips. But congressmen vote on bills that effect Chinese trade, nuclear energy and even Morocco and it’s hard to see how giving a congressman free airplane tickets and hotel accommodations is much different from just writing him a check. Fifty million in ‘gifts’ is a staggering amount. Many congressmen don’t think constituents will care because no taxpayers’ money was spent. But someday someone is going to connect the dots between those trips and votes in the House. Then Congress may find itself facing a bigger scandal than Jack Abramoff flying a couple of congressmen to Scotland to play golf.

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