Members of Congress and their staff have gone on multiple trips since House Speaker John Boehner announced last month congressional travel would be curbed as part of the sequester. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, went on an all-expenses paid trip to Berlin, Munich and Andechs, Germany, while the chief of staff for Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., spent four days in Kolkata and Delhi, India.
But these trips weren't akin to the taxpayer-funded congressional trips of old, which often went to exotic destinations like the Cayman Islands or Italy. (An annual $1 million congressional trip to the Paris Showoften came under particular criticism.) Instead, these trips were funded by private groups and hosted important policy discussions on trade, finance and economics in Europe, and on sex trafficking of minor girls abroad.
Melissa Subbotin, a spokeswoman for Bishop, tells Whispers the Germany trip was funded through the Congressional Study Group on Germany, which links members of Congress to legislators of the German Bundestag and a group with which Bishop is "very involved," she said. The total cost of the six-day trip for Bishop was nearly $11,500 and just over $6,000 for Ryan, who spent less time on the trip.
The India trip cost far less and was also funded by a private group. Blumenthal's chief of staff Laurie Rubiner spent less than $2,500, including travel, for a trip to Kolkata and Delhi to look at human trafficking in India sponsored by the International Justice Mission, an anti-trafficking group. Kamara Jones, Blumenthal's press secretary, said Rubiner was invited because of the senator's role as co-chair of the Senate Caucus To End Human Trafficking.
"She traveled with staff from IJM, as well as Cindy McCain who came on behalf of the McCain Institute to learn about the organization's efforts in Kolkata and Delhi," Jones wrote in an email. "Her trip was paid for by IJM and will be reported when she files her ethics disclosure report. The trip was approved by the Senate Ethics Committee in advance."
Other private groups that sponsor congressional trips include the Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies group based in Washington, and the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that implements humanitarian projects in developing countries.
It is unclear whether lawmakers will go on any taxpayer-funded trips in the near future. Boehner's press secretary Michael Steel told Whispers it "depends on a number of factors," but declined to be more specific. The use of military aircraft for trips to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, is a definitive no-go, Steel said.