With Taxpayer-Funded Trips Curbed, Private Donors Step in to Bankroll CODELs

Ethics experts say privately-sponsored trips will make the travel-for-favors issue worse.

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Members of Congress have long enjoyed a special perk: taxpayer-funded trips abroad, or CODELs, to meet with foreign lawmakers and to discuss policy issues. Often, the destinations were exotic or beautiful locales—the Grand Cayman Islands or Italy—and pricey. Sometimes, the members were even allowed to bring a spouse along. 

But that has now changed, with House Speaker John Boehner announcing last month that congressional trips would be curbed thanks to the sequester. Instead, lawmakers seeking an all-expenses paid trip abroad must now rely mostly on private groups, a shift ethics experts say is troubling.

While Congress tightened restrictions on privately-sponsored congressional trips in 2007, private groups went on to spend nearly $6 million on those trips in 2012—the highest since reform measures were passed, according to Roll Call.

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"Ending CODELs is going to make the travel-for-favors problem much worse," says Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen's Congress Watch, who notes that free travel was a tool disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff once used to get what he wanted from members. "Lawmakers will now mainly be able to 'see the world' at the expense and generosity of those who want something in return."

No CODEL: Lobbyist Jack Ambramoff, left, entertains Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, during an August 2002 trip to Scotland.
No CODEL: Lobbyist Jack Ambramoff, left, entertains then Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, during an August 2002 trip to Scotland.

The New York-based Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit funded by "individuals, foundations, and governments" that sponsors congressional travel to developing countries, says it funds travel so that members of Congress can gain a broader perspective on the world. In August, the institute organized a trip to Kazakhstan for lawmakers to meet with senior policy makers there.

"We don't take any positions, or have any goals, except for members to meet leaders overseas," the group's executive director Joe Merante says.

But Wayne Norman, a professor of ethics at Duke University, argues that even donations from well-intentioned charities or foundations for lawmaker travel may be problematic.

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"Even without literally corrupting the recipient, they make his or her future judgments and decisions less impartial or reliable," Norman says.

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit group with major, well-respected benefactors such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, is one of the top groups that sets up private trips for lawmakers. While Aspen once designed trips that took lawmakers to stylish European locales, today the group tells Whispers it is more careful.

"I try to have a good antenna for where members will have less difficulty of explaining why and where they are going," says Dan Glickman, who is executive director of the Aspen Institute congressional program and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 18 years. "You're not going to find us going to Tahiti or anything like that."

This year, the Aspen Institute is holding their annual seminar on Islam for lawmakers in Turkey, while in previous years they jetted members of Congress to Rome and Barcelona.

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