San Diego Union Tribune

January 8, 2007

DANA WILKIE    LETTER FROM WASHINGTON
Freebies take a holiday

Amazing what a little investigation can do: After the Center for Public Integrity last year reported that privately funded travel for members of Congress was booming, travel has dropped off precipitously.

The center, a nonpartisan government watchdog, found that during a one-year span ending June 30, 2005, corporations, trade groups and nonprofit organizations spent more than $10.3 million to send lawmakers and their staffers on about 4,700 trips.

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During the most recent one-year period ending June 30, such spending had dropped by about half, to $5.4 million spent on 2,700 trips. The drop comes as Democrats, who last week took control of the House, propose new rules that would ban lobbyists and the organizations that employ them from planning, financing or participating in such travel.

Interestingly, one of the chief corporate targets of the earlier report – General Atomics, a San Diego-based defense contractor – has trimmed such gift-giving significantly. General Atomics was the top corporate sponsor of travel in the center's earlier study, spending about $660,000 on 86 trips. During the most recent one-year period, the company had spent less than $7,000 on six trips.

NEW YEAR, OLD FIGHT

The feud between two Southern California lawmakers continues over Santa Rosa Island, that part of the Channel Islands National Park where some enjoy hunting Roosevelt elk and mule deer.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Alpine Republican who recently stepped down as House Armed Services Committee chairman and announced his presidential candidacy, slipped into the defense authorization bill a plan that would void a court settlement to end hunting on the island in four years. Hunter wants hunting privileges to continue indefinitely for disabled veterans and other military types.

Rep. Lois Capps, the Democrat whose district includes the island, wants to end private hunting on the island so the public can enjoy full, year-round access to the park – even though Hunter maintains that hikers, bikers and others still could enjoy the island if hunting continued.

Late last year, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, weighed in. They attached an amendment to the Veterans Affairs spending bill to ensure the island would remain open to the public. But the Senate bill was one of 11 pieces of appropriations legislation that Congress failed to pass in the 109th Congress.

Capps' next move is to introduce a bill in the House to reverse the Hunter language, perhaps in the next few weeks.

NO HONEYMOON

It didn't take long for Vista Republican Darrell Issa to take a shot at newly seated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The congressman sent the San Francisco Democrat a letter hours after her colleagues elected her the first woman to control the House gavel.

Issa chided Pelosi for what he called a “glaring error” in her Democratic rules package, which he claims has the unintended effect of grounding congressional members who are pilots and aircraft owners. The rules – Pelosi's attempt to keep her members in line after the ethical lapses of the past year – apparently would prevent congressional members who own aircraft from using them to commute between Washington, D.C., and their districts, and also would forbid member use of privately owned aircraft to conduct personal business or to take a family vacation.

“This conspicuous error is the result of the hasty, secretive manner in which you have assembled this legislation,” Issa wrote Pelosi in a letter with such terms as “dark of the night” and “behind closed doors” – strong language for an easily corrected oversight.

The error “was a result of an oversight that could have been corrected had Democrats not excluded Republicans and written the rule in secret,” said Issa spokesman Frederick Hill. “It's unfortunate that Democrats have broken their promise to write legislation through an open process.”

Issa, a licensed pilot who does not own a plane, typically takes a commercial airliner when traveling between D.C. and San Diego.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.