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Time for 'Educational Trips' for Our Elected Officials

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As the holidays approach many of you may feel like getting out of town. So do our elected officials.

Many take this time before the legislative session begins to go on so-called "educational" trips. In and of itself this could, at least in some cases, be a good idea: Officials can learn about various business and environmental issues. But the wrinkle is that special interests groups largely, if not exclusively, fund many of these trips, meaning they are often categorized as gifts.

The educational experience appears to vary widely among the trips. In some cases our officials meet with foreign officials; in other cases they appear to spend much of their time on recreational activities -- like golf.

Our elected officials should not be expected to stay home and/or avoid any contact with lobbyists and special interests as they often serve important purposes. However, it is of course important to remember that almost by definition these lobbyists and special interests are seeking to obtain favorable outcomes from elected officials and those officials must at times regulate those interest groups. Close relationships can, in other words, create or appear to create conflicts of interest.

Appearances are important. When it appears that elected officials obtain perks like trips paid for by the very interests seeking to influence them, the public can reasonably have questions about the propriety of those arrangements.

Those funding and planning the trips may not only be trying to curry favor with elected officials, but they also help to control who the legislators meet on these trips and what they see. Put another way, they help determine what legislators are "educated" about.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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