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."