September 22, 2010, US News - During their August recess, many Congress members headed home to campaign, but some lawmakers and staffers—129, according to the latest available reports—came back from the month-long break after traveling to places as far afield as South Africa and Turkey, thanks to trips sponsored by private organizations.
Participants say that such privately funded travel, both overseas and domestic, enables members of Congress and senior staff members to gain knowledge and experience without spending taxpayers' money. But the practice draws scrutiny because it was abused in the past by lawmakers on lobbyist-funded trips heavy on golf, sightseeing, and shopping. After the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal broke in 2005, Congress began to rein in privately funded excursions, and new rules went into effect in 2007 to limit lobbyists' involvement.
The levels of such outside-sponsored foreign and domestic travel dropped off steeply as a result of the new restrictions, according to a U.S. News review of congressional travel records compiled by the non-partisan website LegiStorm, as well as public disclosures from the clerks of the House and Senate. Private groups so far have spent $6.5 million on travel for the 111th Congress during 2009 and 2010, less than half the $15 million spent in 2005-2006, before the new rules. (Both figures in 2010 dollars.)
The biggest spender on trips during the 111th Congress has been the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). Since January 1, 2009, AIEF has funded trips for 154 Congress members and staff, at a cumulative cost of $1,619,755.All of these trips were to Israel, with the stated purpose of educating Congress members and staffers about the U.S.-Israel relationship. For instance, AIEF sent a 57-person delegation at a total cost of over $844,000 in August 2009. On these trips, participants met with members of the Israeli government and also attended classes and toured significant religious sites.
The Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, has been the second largest spender during the 111th Congress, paying for 179 trips at a cost of nearly $1.3 million. Aspen sends Congress members and staffers to foreign destinations for week-long conferences with scholars and world leaders on a variety of issues, including two conferences on political Islam, which took place over the 2009 and 2010 Memorial Day recesses, as well as a conference on energy policy in April 2010.
Two other groups with particular regional interests are among the major sponsors of congressional travel. The Turkish Coalition of America, whose trips, according to a spokesman, work toward "combating ongoing misinformation about Turkey" and "helping people understand why it is that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is so valuable," is the No. 3 funder since January 2009. The Turkish Coalition has spent $545,710 on 85 trips for lawmakers and staffers during that time period. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, a foundation that promotes transatlantic relations, particularly between the United States and Germany, ranks fourth in sponsoring congressional travel, having paid for 59 trips totalling $398,177 this session.
On the ideological front, conservative organizations have spent more on privately funded trips this session than left-leaning groups. The Congressional Institute, a right-leaning think tank that organizes annual retreats for Republican members of Congress and their staffers, is the number-five funder of trips during this congressional session, sponsoring 320 trips worth $249,680. These trips went to Maryland or Virginia for two-to-three-day retreats or meetings.
This also makes the Institute the organization that sponsors the greatest number of congressional trips. (The next most active since January 2009 has been the non-partisan Aspen Institute, with 179 trips.) The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has sponsored 104 trips, at a cost of $82,063. The Club for Growth and George Mason University's Mercatus Center, which both promote conservative economic policies, have also been active. Club for Growth has sponsored 24 trips costing a total of $38,166, and the Mercatus Center has sponsored 62 costing $31,807.
On the left, fewer organizations sponsor travel, and they spend less money as well. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, who served as President Clinton's chief of staff, has been the biggest spender among liberal organizations, sponsoring six trips costing $73,085 during the 111th Congress. Third Way, a progressive think tank, is another liberal sponsor, paying for 54 trips at a cost of $33,302 this session.
Private organizations cannot simply send congressional delegations on pleasure trips. As part of the 2007 rule changes, trips funded by private entities and connected with a legislator's status as a member of Congress must be related to members' or staffers' "official duties" and "not create the appearance that [members] are using their public office for private gain." The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct lists fact-finding trips, meeting attendance, and speaking engagements as examples of acceptable privately funded travel. The rules also limit the length of such excursions—three days for domestic trips and seven days for international travel—and prohibit lobbyists from planning, organizing, requesting, or arranging most trips. Organizations that retain lobbyists can, however, fund trips no longer than one day and one night, to allow Congress members to attend events like speaking engagements and panel discussions.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, an organization that advocates for corporate and governmental accountability, says that the tighter travel regulations have been beneficial. Prior to the rule changes, he says, organizations would "put their lobbyists on a corporate jet with members of Congress, [and] their lobbyists would play golf with a member of Congress. It was an extension of lobbying." The 2007 rules ban lobbyists from accompanying lawmakers on most trips, making such junkets a thing of the past.
Yet Holman also argues that the influence of lobbyists has not been sufficiently diminished, pointing to the big spending by AIEF, in particular, as an example. "In the course of drafting these rules, there were a couple of loopholes incorporated into the rules," says Holman. Congressional rules allow non-profit organizations to fund travel, a provision that Holman calls the "AIPAC loophole." Thus, the non-profit AIEF is allowed to sponsor travel despite being affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel group which prides itself on being one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.
The loophole, says Holman, "could be abused if other organizations took advantage of it."
Other private organizations with clear policy interests are among the main financiers of congressional excursions. Trade organizations, like the National Association of Broadcasters, and organizations with significant clout on Capitol Hill, like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, have recently paid for trips.
Illinois Republican Rep. Peter Roskam characterizes his travel to Israel with AEIF as valuable, and says such privately financed trips save taxpayer money. He says that these trips provide "firsthand perspective on the global challenges" lawmakers have to address when crafting U.S. policies. Josh Block, spokesman for AIEF, stresses that his organization's trips are respected among legislators, and "have long been considered among the most substantive, educational and valuable trips available for members of Congress."
The Aspen Institute, which ranks second this session in paying for private congressional travel, "stands in stark contrast to other groups that sponsor private travel," says Holman. The institute bills its Congressional Program as a "nongovernmental, nonpartisan educational program for members of the United States Congress." Holman says that the program lives up to its billing, and is "perhaps one of the organizations that provides very useful educational trips for Congress."
California Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren says that her four Aspen Institute trips this session, which focused on topics including education and U.S.-Russia relations, provided her with educational opportunities that are hard to come by in everyday legislative life. At these forums, she says, "you just basically drill down on these subjects for a period of four days. When you're in the Capitol, you're running from meeting to meeting, from hearing to hearing, and you're interrupted by votes. It's a rare time when you can really sit down and drill a subject for hours."
Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is a longtime regular Aspen attendee, and has accepted travel from no other organization since 2007. Mark Helmke, a senior advisor to Lugar, says that the senator feels that the forums encourage dialogue and build camaraderie among members of Congress. "One of his complaints about the partisan nature of Congress is that members of Congress don't get to know each other anymore," says Helmke. "He's found this to be a very rewarding way to get to know other members.
For all the praise that Congress members heap on Aspen's educational forums, the institute's trips can also seem posh for what are billed as educational and fact-finding missions. Over the years, the Aspen Institute has sent members of Congress to destinations including Croatia, Tunisia, Portugal, and Jordan. These delegations often include ten to twenty members, with trip costs that can exceed $10,000 per person. Add in congressional spouses or other traveling companions, and the costs add up. A June 2010 conference on political Islam in Tunisia, attended by 17 members of Congress, was reported to have cost over $275,000.
Dick Clark, a former senator and director of Aspen's Congressional Program, says that going to foreign destinations is part of the draw for legislators. Asked whether he thinks that the locations of Aspen's conferences are a reason Congress members attend, Clark responded, "Well, I hope so." He added as an example, "I think if someone hasn't been to Jordan, then they'd find [a trip there] more attractive."
Not all trips have lofty educational aspirations. Since January 2009, Maher, Inc. has paid for 14 Congress members to fly to Los Angeles to appear on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. Comedy Central footed the $1,330 bill when Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California traveled to New York to appear on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report in August. Atlantic Bridge, a group promoting relationships between United States and United Kingdom conservatives, sent Arizona Republican Sen. John Kyl to London in November 2009 to present the Margaret Thatcher Medal of Freedom to fellow American Henry Kissinger (Kyl's two nights of lodging cost $2,471). Georgia Rep. John Lewis traveled to Cincinnati courtesy of Major League Baseball this May to present an award to singer Harry Belafonte.
The ten organizations that have spent the most on congressional travel during the 111th Congress are (in descending order): the American Israel Education Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the Turkish Coalition of America, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Congressional Institute, the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, CARE, Robert Bosch Stiftung (a German foundation), the Heritage Foundation, and Fu Jen Catholic University of Taiwan.