Taxpayers and Private Groups Pay for Congress's Globe-trotting Over Memorial Day

One of the benefits of being a member of Congress is lavish trips, sometimes on the taxpayers' dime.

The Rome Cavalieri Hilton, a luxurious 15-acre urban resort perched on a hill overlooking the "Eternal City," announces the completion of a four-year, $45-million renovation designed to enhance the guest experience across all touch points of the resort. Pictured: View of Rome's city lights from the elegant terrace of the newly renovated Rome Cavalieri Hilton.
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While many Americans watched their wallets, several dozen members of Congress used the Memorial Day recess to travel overseas to places including Rome, Venice, and Athens without digging into their own. At least 73 lawmakers traveled abroad that week, many with spouses in tow, a U.S. News review found. The largest contingent was 17 members of Congress ensconced for five nights in the $480-a-night Rome Cavalieri Hilton, courtesy of the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit group famous for transporting lawmakers to chic destinations, ranging from the Grand Cayman Islands to Istanbul, for in-depth looks at foreign policy and other issues.

The Aspen Institute brought the lawmakers to Rome for a seminar called "Political Islam: Challenges for U.S. Policy." But it wasn't just the members of Congress who benefited, at no cost to themselves, since all but one brought along a spouse or child. Trips for two soared as high as $20,120, and the bottom line for members and their companions rose to nearly $263,000, according to disclosure reports.

Nine Democrats were on the Rome trip: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Nita Lowey of New York, and Howard Berman, Susan Davis, George Miller, and Henry Waxman, all of California. Eight Republicans also were on board: Sens. Robert Bennett of Utah, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and George Voinovich of Ohio and Reps. Charles Boustany of Louisiana, Geoffrey Davis of Kentucky, John Duncan of Tennessee, Fred Upton of Michigan, and Greg Walden of Oregon. All but Bingaman brought one relative, most often a spouse; Blumenauer took a son. Three members, Lowey, Miller and Upton, extended the trip to Italy at their own expense. Aspen, which has been holding such conferences for lawmakers since 1983 and now puts on about five a year, marks a milestone in August with its 100th conference in Paris, according to Dick Clark, who directs the Aspen Congressional Program. Those meetings will probe the cultural and ideological aspects of Islam.

Although "recess" isn't the official term anymore, the globe-trotting during Memorial Day weekend debunks the idea that members are at home during the break. The Senate called the week a "state work period," and the House used the term "district work period." Several lawmakers ventured into war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or to strategic locations, such as Pakistan, which Congress watchers don't question. But they raise flags when members travel to picture-perfect places such as Italy, Greece, and the arctic reaches of Norway, as they did over Memorial Day. Taxpayers paid for 70 percent of the trips, which whisked lawmakers to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and South America.

Ten lawmakers went on a weeklong, taxpayer-paid trip from May 23 to 30 for meetings of the Transatlantic Legislators' Dialogue in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with subsequent stops—and la dolce vita—in Venice and Naples. The dialogue unites lawmakers with peers from the European Parliament. Seven in the U.S. delegation had a spouse along, says Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The group was rounded out by six aides and the House chaplain, according to reports on official foreign travel, which do not list accompanying spouses. The reported costs were $53,992, a figure that understates the bottom line since most lawmakers flew on military planes and the Pentagon refuses to release details such as the aircraft, manifest, and estimated cost. Spouses fly free aboard such flights, Weil says. A draft itinerary leaked to the Washington Post showed the lawmakers were to visit a Slovenian castle, dine near Naples at a Michelin two-star restaurant, and, at their own expense, take in opera in Venice. The group was led by House Democrat Shelley Berkley of Nevada. Her spokesman, David Cherry, confirmed the outings but stressed the business at hand: from a wreath laying at a U.S. air base to discussions on topics including climate change, energy, trade, port security, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Berkley, in a statement to U.S. News, said the dialogue was a forum for U.S. and European allies "to learn from one another and build even stronger ties."

Updated on 7/25/08