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House Members Regain Flexibility to Fly Home

House members are once again cleared for takeoff, as the chamber's ethics committee quietly announced last week that lawmakers could make reservations on multiple flights to and from their districts without violating ethics rules.

The life of a member of Congress isn't always easy. Most lawmakers fly home to their states or districts just about every week, juggling their busy schedules and the unpredictable House and Senate calendars as they figure out when they can make a beeline for the airport.

Faithful Capitol Briefing readers will remember that for a brief period last year, this ritual got even harder. The Air Transport Association warned in a legal opinion that airlines might be afoul of tough new congressional gift rules if they let lawmakers make reservations on multiple flights home and then catch whichever flight was most convenient, a practice that had been commonplace.

After a couple of months of hassle and inconvenience, the Senate Ethics Committee announced in mid-October that allowing senators to make multiple reservations did not constitute an improper gift, and senators were able to resume the practice. But the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct was silent on the issue, leaving members in that chamber unable to book multiple flights.

Now the House ethics panel has spoken, issuing an advisory opinion concluding "that there is no potential conflict associated with allowing Members to make multiple reservations, and that the practice does not create an appearance of impropriety."

The ethics memo is worth reading in full, if only because it takes a while to reach that statement, and at times seems to be heading toward the opposite conclusion.

Congressional gift rules allow members and staff to accept a benefit or service if it is "offered to members of a group or class in which membership is unrelated to congressional employment." In other words, if only House members were allowed to book multiple flights, that would be an improper gift from the airlines. The ethics panel concluded that other travelers are able, in at least some circumstances, to do the same thing.

The committee also concluded that this is "an unusual case," in that the service gives members added convenience but appears to have "little or no identifiable monetary value," and the service may also help members better represent their constituents by letting them get back to their districts as quickly as possible.

As in the Senate, the House ethics panel only cleared this practice for "official travel," so lawmakers can't use this service to go on vacation, nor can they accept an upgrade to first-class just because they're members (though they can get upgrades for being frequent fliers, which most are). And they still have to deal with weather delays, lousy food and boring movies, just like the rest of us.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 25, 2008; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Ethics and Rules  
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