Back to Coach for Congress' Frequent Fliers

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Who would have believed it? Congress—or at least the House—may actually be serious about ethics reform after all.

The real test has never been all those sneaky appropriations bill "earmarks" you've been hearing about over the past year, or even the lavish junkets that turned Jack Abramoff into Washington's favorite travel agent. It's whether lawmakers would agree to stand in airport security lines and take off their shoes like the rest of us.

When the new House leadership announced it was going to ban travel on corporate jets—something that goes farther than what the Democrats had promised during the midterm election campaign—it signaled that they might actually be willing to give up the day-to-day lifestyle perks that have created what Fred Wertheimer, head of the watchdog group Democracy 21, calls a "culture of entitlement." Congressmen have always envied the corporate life, and never tire of telling you how much more money they would be making if they hadn't selflessly decided to run for office. In recent years, as commercial airline travel has become an ordeal, nothing has been more precious to them than the ability to catch a corporate jet when they wanted to, paying only a fraction of the real cost, out of either government funds or their campaign accounts. And of course, the companies were happy to oblige—almost always sending along a few of their lobbyists to keep the Congressman company and make sure his drink was fresh.

That was especially true if the lawmaker in question happened to have a big job in Congress. In 2005, the Washington Post found that a dozen House and Senate leaders had taken corporate jets at least 360 times between January 2001 and December 2004—some of them averaging trips as often as once every 10 days. Two thirds of those flights happened on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, which suggest they had become a taxi service for lawmakers on the way home to their districts at the end of the week. What made the whole setup especially beautiful was the fact that disclosure requirements were a joke. Lawmakers had to file the dates they flew and amounts they paid for the travel, but not where they went or why.

The issue is still very much up in the air in the Senate, and is likely to provoke a fight on the floor when it considers its ethics package next week. And these changes, which also include disclosure of earmarks and might also feature tighter limits on junkets, are only the beginning. A lobbying reform bill is expected to be debated in the House next month, and it hopes to set up a new ethics enforcement process in March.

But in the meantime, if that cranky guy in the middle seat looks familiar, go ahead and introduce yourself. He may be your Congressman.