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.