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.