06.12.11

Exclusive: Congressional Travel Spikes, Despite Vows of Austerity

With America's economy in the gutter, lawmakers pledge to cut back—except, apparently, when it comes to fancy trips around the globe at the expense of taxpayers and special interests. Laura Colarusso reports on the troubling spike in Congressional travel.

With gas prices pinching the wallet and the national debt mounting members of Congress proclaim that they feel Americans’ pain and are committed to cutting back. Just not one of their favorite perks—globetrotting to far-flung locations at the expense of taxpayers and special interests.

Lawmakers’ trips are up sharply during the first five months of 2011, erasing any memory of Hill leaders pledging just last summer to rein in travel costs, a Daily Beast review of congressional trip reports shows.

The pledges of travel austerity have been replaced this spring with fresh images of lawmakers strolling down an ornate European street with their spouses or touring the Bosporus Sea by boat—all supposedly in the name of doing the people’s business.

Not a bad business if you can get it.

“This is an important issue for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that millions of dollars are spent on flying lawmakers all around the world,” says Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. “It is a form of influence peddling when sponsored by private entities. When the government pays for it, we need to know that tax dollars are being used wisely instead of funding junkets.”

Lawmakers can travel at taxpayer expense or accept free trips to symposiums paid for by academic institutions and think tanks. The latter often gets lawmakers and their family members to exotic destinations for a little food for thought and a whole lot of wining and dining.

Even some of the new GOP freshman—who rose to power on a platform of federal frugality—have gotten in on the travel action.

Take, for instance, the 20 lawmakers from both parties—with all but one spouse in tow—who were ferried off to Vienna, Austria for a week-long conference on nuclear proliferation. They stayed in style at Intercontinental Hotel.

That trip cost about $225,000 and was paid for by the elite Aspen Institute think tank.

In all, lawmakers have taken more than 200 trips financed by private groups, costing more than $1 million since January. That’s almost double the amount spent during the first five months in 2010 and well above the first five of months of 2007, before Americans were swept into a recession and trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits.

Dozens more congressional trips were footed by taxpayers, supposedly in the name of research. Whether a trip is truly a fact-finding mission—or a corporate-sponsored junket or a political theater—is often in the eye of the beholder.

Last month, for example, six members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee headed to the Gulf of Mexico to visit an offshore rig, meet with oil industry executives and explore the Louisiana coastline.

Fact-finding didn’t seem paramount to the five Republicans and one Democrat on the trip, however, since the House had already approved legislation to accelerate offshore drilling. The "Offshore Energy Tour" seemed to be more of a political victory lap to set the stage for Republicans to make the 2012 campaign argument that President Obama was unfriendly to the Gulf Coast’s dominant energy industry.

Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the committee—and also went on the Aspen trip to Austria—did not return calls seeking comment.

Unlike regular travelers who find themselves facing $4-per-gallon gasoline heading into the summer, Upton and his five colleagues didn't have to worry personally about the cost of fueling up. Most expenses were covered by a mix of taxpayer and industry dollars. (Chevron, for instance, paid for the lawmakers’ helicopter trip to the company's rig.)

Such trips were supposed to be waning after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a memo to all congressional offices last year demanding that lawmakers cool their jets, literally. The revised rules, which called for lawmakers to fly coach unless the trip was more than 14 hours, were “part of our continuing effort to ensure transparency and accountability in congressional management,” Pelosi said at the time. The California Democrat herself had come under intense scrutiny for using military jets to get back to her district.

But once Republicans seized control of the House, even some of the new GOP freshman—who rose to power on a platform of federal frugality that made them darlings of the Tea Party movement—got in on the travel action.

Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Steve Womack of Arkansas both campaigned last year on the idea that the federal government is wasteful, and they’ve voted to cut spending. In February, Womack took aim at wasteful spending, saying, “While the rest of the nation has had to tighten their financial belts, the government has loosened theirs. If America’s people must live within their means, shouldn’t its leaders do the same? The answer is yes.” Yet they both went to the Gulf Coast in May courtesy of the taxpayers. Neither man’s office would comment.

Congressional staffers are quick to point out that the trips—including the ones to Vienna and the Gulf Coast—were cleared by the ethics committee. But tantalizing details of the lawmakers’ far-flung sojourns litter the otherwise mundane expense reports. For example:

Nine lawmakers and eight family members went to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the end of April on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of AIPAC that spent at least $160,000 on the travel. The bipartisan group met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and toured the Gaza Strip border. But they also had time to visit religious sites and popular tourist destinations like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and St. Peter’s Church near the Sea of Galilee, records show. And then there were the museum stops. The group had a guided tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and took in the light and sound show at the Tower of David Museum.

Also in April, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians paid for Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Scott Garrett of New Jersey to go to Turkey with their wives to meet with members of the Turkish House of Representatives. The trip, which cost more than $21,000, included a boat tour of the Istanbul Bosporus and visits to several major Turkish landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Poe, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the trip, saying, “I only participate in foreign trips that I deem relevant and beneficial to my work” and that the focus on Turkey is appropriate because it belongs to “a region that is in turmoil.”

In February, the Aspen Institute spent $64,000 to send 13 lawmakers to Puerto Rico to talk about energy policy. In March, the American Enterprise Institute whisked five senators to Sea Island, Ga. for a three-day stay and policy discussions on “various federal issues,” according to filings.

On the foreign front, where travel is more expensive, lawmakers took several trips to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they frequently opted for less stressful and more attractive locations like Istanbul, London and Brussels. It’s not uncommon for congressional committees to spend upward of $200,000 a quarter on travel. Between January and March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent about $326,000 on lawmaker and staff trips, while the Senate Armed Services Committee paid out more than $210,000.

The biggest private contributor to congressional travel by far is the Aspen Institute, an international non-profit dedicated to fostering leadership, which has spent more than $6 million in the last 10 years funding trips for federal lawmakers. The American Israel Education Foundation comes in second, funding more than $3 million.

Officials at both Aspen and AIPAC say the excursions are invaluable educational opportunities.

“It’s an opportunity to get members together outside of Washington and get them talking,” says Dan Glickman, a former congressman who spearheaded Aspen's trips to Vienna. AIPAC maintains the trips offer lawmakers the opportunity to meet both Israeli and Palestinian policymakers.

Government-sponsored travel is more difficult to assess because the disclosure rules are more lax and the details are scant. On the House side, lawmakers are on track to go on 35 percent more trips this year than they did last year. Senators spent roughly $1.2 million during the first quarter of 2011, ahead of last year's annualized pace of $4.3 million.

And being a short-timer doesn’t have to crimp anyone’s style. Take former Sen. Chris Dodd, the Democrat from Connecticut. After announcing in January 2010 that he wouldn't seek reelection, Dodd traveled to Brazil, Argentina, India, Spain and the United Kingdom on the taxpayers’ dime. As chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he signed off on close to $27,000 worth of foreign travel for himself, including a $2,000 trip to Cuba just before leaving office. A spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, Dodd’s new employer, said that the former senator’s trips were “especially important to bilateral and multilateral relations and the global harmonization of financial regulations.”

The travel continues apace, despite a tightening of regulations in 2007 after the Jack Abramoff lobbying and influence scandal. "There is precious little info they make public, not just about the cost of the trip but what they’re doing on the trip," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-profit government watchdog. "I can understand for security reasons why they don’t say where lawmakers are staying beforehand, but after it’s all said and done there is absolutely no reason why those details cannot be made public immediately so taxpayers can decide whether the travel was necessary and appropriate."