LETTER FROM WASHINGTON  |  DANA WILKIE
Follow the dollars

October 23, 2006

We just love those folks over at the Center for Responsive Politics, who never tire of finding some new way to blast light on how your elected representatives are spending their time in Congress.

If characters such as Randy “Duke” Cunningham and Mark Foley can roam this town for years – spending their time on bribery and sexually explicit e-mails – it never hurts to have a new tool to check on these folks now and again.

So the latest from the center, a nonprofit research group that tracks money in politics, is a database that lets us know all about the personal finances and travel habits of, say, a Darrell Issa. You may recall the Vista Republican at one time was among the best-traveled members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, spending far more taxpayer money on foreign trips than even the committee's chairman or two vice chairmen.

So with a few keystrokes in the center's database at www.opensecrets.org – which lists congressional travel from July 2005 through August 2006 – we learn that Issa continues to be partial to an annual consumer electronics show that typically is staged in Las Vegas, and which he attends almost every year. This year, the congressman took along three staffers for a total of nearly $8,000, a bill paid by the Consumer Electronics Association, a national trade group.

There is no limit to the number of privately sponsored trips that congressional members can take, though there is a limit on the number of trip days that a private source can pay for. The center notes that some of the travel forms that lawmakers submit are good about listing the purpose and itinerary for a trip, while others “fall well short of being comprehensive.”

 

TRAVELING LIGHT(ER)

We should note that, compared with three years ago, private groups now are spending considerably less on congressional members – down to $1.34 million so far this year, from nearly $4 million in 2003. Could this have something to do with the scandals surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who illegally gave lawmakers vacations and other gifts, or Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who just pleaded guilty in connection with the Abramoff mess?

As for Issa's personal finances, it should surprise no one that the founder of the Viper alarm system is worth at least $135.8 million, making him the second-richest person in the House, right behind Democratic Rep. Jane Harman of Torrance.

Rep. Susan Davis appears to be a big fan of the Aspen Institute, the nonpartisan organization that promotes “enlightened leadership and open-minded dialogue.”

The institute hosted the San Diego Democrat on three recent trips at a cost of nearly $21,000.

Davis' destinations: Punta Mita, Mexico, in January; Montego Bay – that's Jamaica for you stay-at-home types – in February; and Ireland two summers ago. The topics: U.S. policy in Latin America, education reform and U.S.-Russia relations, respectively. Among the House's 435 members, Davis ranks a not-too-shabby No. 131 in terms of personal wealth, with assets of at least $1.1 million.

TRAVEL LESS

Let's say that Rep. Bob Filner, San Diego's other Democrat, and Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Alpine Republican, are pretty much homebodies. The former accepted one $600 trip to Los Angeles in summer 2005 to speak at a National Education Association event. Hunter has taken no privately funded trips in the past year, sending staffer Mark Elpey to a $600 conference in St. Michael's, Md., last fall on “The Christian Mind and Its Global Consequences.”

As for the financial picture, Filner is worth at least $399,022, No. 211 among his colleagues, while Hunter is worth at least $1.4 million, putting him at No. 113.

Rep. Brian Bilbray? Well, the Carlsbad Republican hasn't been in town long enough to be taking many trips, having just been elected in June to replace Cunningham, who is now behind bars thanks to that bribery we mentioned. Bilbray's net worth? At least $208,017, making him No. 270 in the House.

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

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