What if it came to light that five years ago, before 9-11 and before gas was even $2 a gallon, the chairmen of congressional committees that write (or kill) legislation on auto pollution and gasoline mileage had spent a week in Hawaii with their spouses, all expenses paid by manufacturers of SUVs, Humvees and pickups?

And what if the ostensible reason for this trip was so the lawmakers could attend some two- or three-day conference on the value to the economy and highway safety of huge vehicles? The environmentalists and alternative-energy crowd were not invited.

Now, suppose those committee chairmen today are faced with legislation to toughen auto mileage standards. Scads of lobbyists ... want private time with them and it's impossible to meet all the requests. But, they do make time for the lobbyist from the SUV, pickup and Humvee industry. That scenario, which isn't all that hypothetical, is part of the dark side of non-governmental interests paying for trips by members of Congress and their staffs.

Now, thanks to a study by the Center for Public Integrity ... a light is shining on this shadowy practice. The CPI found that during 51?2 years ending in 2005, members of Congress and their aides took at least 23,000 trips (often with spouses) valued at almost $50 million. Corporations, trade associations and nonprofit groups picked up the bills. ...

The trips are legal, although some violated congressional ethics rules. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and his staff led all 435 House members by far, with nearly a half-million dollars in trips. ...

Congress should bring the reporting of these trips into the 21st century. In the meantime, nothing is stopping ... all members of Congress from issuing press releases and Web page announcements of every one of their excursions paid by a non-government group or individual.

-- The Columbian, Clark County, Wash.

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