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Senate Ethics Approves Multiple Airline Tickets

The Senate Ethics Committee has officially ruled that senators can book multiple flights for the same trip and just use one ticket without breaking the chamber's new zero-tolerance gift ban.

As Capitol Briefing has previously reported, an airline industry legal opinion last month created havoc among Senate staff whose job duties include scheduling end-of-the-week trips home for senators to be with their families and constituents.

In a letter dated Oct. 17, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Tex.) - the chairman and vice-chairman of the evenly divided six-senator panel - declared that "there would be no gift ... if a member (or a Senate employee making a reservation for that member) makes more than one reservation for official travel with a participating airline."

The Air Transport Association, in an internal legal opinion, had questioned whether it would be a gift to allow senators to do something that the general public doesn't have the chance to do: book multiple tickets and then just take the one that best fits their schedule. Airlines including Continental, Northwest and Delta - each of which services the home airports of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) - began refusing the multiple booking services.

Rather than awaiting the issue to be handled by their committee chairs and ranking members, Reid and McConnell slipped a provision into a spending bill earlier this month declaring multiple bookings to be permissible for both senators and staff - an expansion of the prior practice, which was limited to senators. For now, the Ethics Committee ruling settles the matter unless the Reid-McConnell provision ends up making its way through a House-Senate conference and is signed into law.

For now, the multiple-ticket benefit will not be extended to staff, as the Boxer-Cornyn letter was specific in saying that only a "member" can get multiple tickets.

Their letter was prompted by questioning from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, which wrote most of the new lobbying laws. Feinstein has contended that the multiple-ticket practice was something given to other travelers, including frequent fliers.

"Members are often unable to predict with specificity when they will be able to travel because of the fluid and unpredictable nature of Senate business," Feinstein and Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), ranking member of Rules, wrote to the Ethics pane earlier this month. "Consequently, members frequently reserve more than one flight to ensure they will be able to return to their home states to attend constituent events and conduct other official business."

One other issue is left uncertain about the Ethics letter as compared to the Reid-McConnell provision. The committee letter specifies that the multiple-ticketing benefit is permissible for "official travel", leaving open the question of whether it would be OK for Senate staff to make many reservations for their bosses on weekends in which the lawmakers simply plan on going home and spending the weekend with family and friends. The Reid-McConnell provision simply says that multiple ticketing is not a violation, not specifying the need for official travel.

Update/clarification: Senate rules have long considered traveling to home states part of official travel, so the Boxer-Cornyn letter does continue to allow such multiple-booking travel. However, in both the Ethics and Rules letters, the lawmakers clarify that multiple reservations are only acceptable for official travel, meaning the practice would be prohibited for political travels such as to and from fundraising events.

By Paul Kane  |  October 29, 2007; 4:15 PM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules , Senate  
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