Free trips legal for MN rep and family, but smell bad

MPR Photo/Anthony Kwan/file

Some years ago, when I was running MPR’s political unit, I tried to sell an influential newsroom leader on a series of stories on campaign contributions to sitting politicians. They were usually derailed with one question: “Are they legal?” he’d ask. People might find the stories more interesting if the politician was doing something illegal, he figured.

That’s the bottom line of today’s Star Tribune investigation into the trip-taking habits of Minnesota 3rd District U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen. His trips are all legal.

The public didn’t pick up the tab; various institutions looking for legal influence at the Capitol did.

There’s another key line in the Star Tribune’s story, however.

Paulsen declined to be interviewed for this story.

His spokesperson delivered an email statement that answered my former colleague’s question.

“His recent travel has focused on the Cuban embargo, the AIDS epidemic and health care issues at refugee camps in the Horn of Africa,” Griffin said. “He has brought one family member a few times, but it’s always in accordance with the House of Representatives ethics rules.”

Sometimes perception isn’t everything; sometimes it barely registers a blip, if that. As the latest polls — and decades’ previous — have proven, people have a low opinion of Congress. So if they think a congressman is a free-loading, influence-peddling, globe-trotting representative, it’s probably little more than what they’ve come to expect.

But it would be a nice pat on the voters’ head for a politician to at least step up to the allegation and say “I’m not.”

Is there information to be gleaned by seeing things firsthand? Probably. But the Star Tribune notes that Paulsen hasn’t signed on nor advocated any legislation on the subjects for which he and his family’s trips were allegedly focused.

People in Congress have been doing this for years (DFLer U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison had previously received Star Tribune attention for his trips) and while it has a faint, stale aroma, there’s nothing to prove it’s unethical in the political body that decides for itself what unethical is.

As for the voters? None of this is illegal. Whose fault is that?

Related: The corrupting of Congressman Erik Paulsen (City Pages)

Have congressional seat, will travel (MinnPost)

John Oliver takes a deep, terrifying look at the role of money in Congress (Vox)