By Richard Rubin
David Vitter has been crisscrossing Louisiana for the past six months, holding public events about the issues at the core of his campaign for governor: transportation, energy, flood insurance and taxes.
He's done all of that on the federal dime.
Vitter, a Republican senator, brought a series of U.S. Senate "field hearings" to Louisiana as he raises his public profile before October's state election. So far this year, Vitter's Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee has held 10 meetings in Louisiana and eight in Washington.
That's unusual. Of the 26 field hearings held by Senate committees so far this year, Vitter has had 12 of them in Louisiana, including two by another committee he leads. No other state has hosted more than two field hearings.
In just six months, Vitter held as many small-business committee events in Louisiana as former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu did during more than five years when she led the same panel.
"It's clever, and it's self-serving," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a group that aims to counter corporate power. He said he hadn't heard of any other lawmakers doing with field hearings what Vitter has done. "It's the frequency that is very revealing," Holman said.
Vitter held similar committee events in Louisiana when Democrats controlled the Senate and he does them regardless of whether he's on the ballot, said Luke Bolar, a spokesman for the senator.
"He's always done this because he thinks it's very important to bring the committee to the real world," Bolar said. "It's not a political thing. It's a 'way he wants to run the committee' thing."
Vitter became chairman of the small-business committee in January after Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate. He also chairs a transportation subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Vitter has missed four Senate votes in Washington on days when he was holding hearings in Louisiana.
"That seems like an aggressive use," Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit budget watchdog group in Washington, said of Vitter's hearings. "That said, we think that Congress should be doing more oversight, more accountability, more hearings."
The senator's actions occur at a familiar line for members of Congress, the blurry intersection between home-state representation and self-promoting politics.
"Promoting themselves and doing their job, that's to be expected," said Richard Painter, a government ethics expert at the University of Minnesota.
The crucial questions, he said, are whether the field hearings place a burden on other members of Vitter's committees and making sure that government funds are used for official purposes, not political ones.
Vitter, 54, was first elected to the U.S. House in 1999 and then the Senate in 2004. He is running for governor to replace term-limited Bobby Jindal, who is running for president. If no candidate reaches 50 percent in the Oct. 24 election, there will be a Nov. 21 runoff.
Under Senate rules, field hearings can't be explicitly employed for political purposes, according to a 2014 Congressional Research Service report. In addition, there are limits on reimbursements for some travel within 60 days of an election where a senator's name is on the ballot. Otherwise, the hearings proceed just like hearings in Washington, though often with just the home-state senator in attendance.
It's difficult to tell exactly what costs are associated with Vitter's hearings.
The federal government already pays for lawmakers to fly back and forth from Washington to their home states, so it doesn't necessarily cost extra to get Vitter back and forth because he would already be making that trip home.
The small-business committee's spending records, available only through March 31, show more than $6,700 in payments for travel by committee staff members to Louisiana. That doesn't include the environment committee, members of Vitter's personal staff, or per diem payments to Vitter himself.
Vitter has also encouraged other members of the small-business panel to hold field hearings in their states, and they have done so in Maryland, Colorado and North Dakota this year.
Reimbursements to staff members for costs of field hearings are generally allowed, according to the CRS report, which says field hearings date back at least to the Civil War, when committees traveled to the front lines. Vitter held his first field hearing Jan. 15, nine days after Republicans officially took control of the Senate.
(c)2015 Bloomberg News