Spain. Russia. Egypt. Cuba. Belgium. Oman. Haiti. Afghanistan.
What those countries have in common is that they are among the nations that members of Vermont’s congressional delegation have visited during the past two years.
U.S. senators and representatives make thousands of trips annually, some on the taxpayers’ coin and others as the guests of private corporations or nonprofit groups. The privately financed trips usually are offered in the hopes that, in one way or another, the lawmakers will give back something in return — perhaps in helping pass or kill certain legislation or by burnishing the image or reputation of the group that extends the invitation.
Rules on such congressional junkets were tightened five years ago, and members are now required to get prior permission for privately financed trips. They also must file expense and disclosure reports. Still, travel by senators and representatives is closely scrutinized by public interest groups, who want to assure that lawmakers are not unduly influenced by outside organizations offering them free vacations to some exotic land or resort. Or, if they are so influenced, at least disclosure might allow the public to be aware of the connection.
Vermont’s three lawmakers — U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch — are relatively modest in their travel habits and describe most of their journeys, both domestic and foreign, as being of value for the work they do in Congress. For the most part, they travel on government-financed trips as part of congressional delegations looking into issues that come under the aegis of their committee work.
“There are many good reasons for lawmakers to travel, as well as some bad ones,” says Leahy. “Disclosure and the Senate’s rules are checks on abuse.”
When it comes to trips paid for by the federal government, Welch has journeyed during the past two years to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Afghanistan, Oman, Egypt, France, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Cuba, and Colombia (encompassing four separate trips) — all as a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations.
Sanders has made one government-financed overseas journey during this session of Congress, to Pakistan and Afghanistan, not on committee assignment, but to assess the situation in those two war- and terrorist-scarred nations, to meet with the Afghani and Pakistani presidents and other high-ranking officials, and to visit with U.S. troops from Vermont.
Leahy, the state’s senior member in Washington, took three foreign trips in 2011 and 2012. He was part of the same congressional delegation as Rep. Welch on the visits to Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, and he also traveled to Russia, Ireland, and Belgium, all in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s State Department and Foreign Operations Subcommittee.
As for trips paid for by outside organizations, Welch participated in a conference in Spain last September sponsored by the Aspen Institute on “Policy Changes in the Muslim World.” The cost of Welch’s trip to Spain, picked up entirely by the institute, was $7,737.91. That money covered the congressman’s travel to Spain and all expenses, including room and meals. Scott Coriell, Welch’s spokesman, says the conference was related to Welch’s work on the Middle East as a member of the Oversight subcommittee that deals with security, terrorism, and foreign affairs. The Aspen Institute, a non-partisan think tank, also paid for Welch’s wife to accompany him on the trip.
Sanders has taken two trips this session on someone else’s dime, both domestic. On one, he spoke to a labor group, the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, in Las Vegas. The cost to the union for that journey was $609. Sanders also flew to Los Angeles last year to appear on the television show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” a program he has appeared on in previous sessions of Congress. His appearance cost the show $1,700.84.
A Sanders spokesman, Michael Briggs, says both of those trips afforded the senator the opportunity to speak before large groups of people on issues that he’s been working on in Washington, such as saving Social Security and reversing the recent Supreme Court decision that enables large corporate spending on federal elections. The senator receives an honorarium of about $700 to $800 for appearing on the television show, which he turns over to Vermont charities, according to Briggs.
Sanders again appeared on the Bill Maher show this January, but since he combined that visit with several campaign events in the Los Angeles area, his political campaign paid for the trip to the West Coast. “It would not have been kosher to let the show pay for his campaign,” Briggs explained.
Leahy has not made any trips this session on behalf of outside groups.
While some may be wary of congressional trips and ask whether even government-sponsored travel is worth the money spent on it, Leahy thinks travel often contributes to a lawmaker’s capacity to legislate intelligently.
“As the late Sen. Paul Simon often pointed out, members of Congress generally travel too little to broaden their understanding, considering the importance of the decisions they must make,” says Leahy. “The panel that I chair makes hundreds of decisions each year about U.S. interests, activities and priorities that literally span the globe, funding billions of dollars in overseas programs ranging from the operations of our embassies to famine relief. There is no substitute for seeing some of this work in person and in context.”
Yet not everyone thinks such trips, at least those paid for by private interests, are warranted. Even with the more rigorous travel restrictions enacted in 2007, some watchdog groups see loopholes that enable lawmakers to escape some of the strictures.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act put restrictions on privately sponsored congressional trips. For instance, those offered by registered lobbyists had to be kept to one day. Members also must receive approval from the House or Senate Ethics committees for privately sponsored travel in advance of taking the trips.
But some public interest groups say the two Ethics committees are not being vigilant enough in blocking unwarranted congressional travel. Last year, private groups spent more than $6 million to ferry lawmakers around the globe — an increase of $2.5 million over the previous year. That’s why some groups that monitor Congress are concerned that the fervor ignited by the Abramoff era excesses has now cooled and that lawmakers once again are feeling more comfortable feeding off the lobbyists’ trough. These public interest groups contend that Congress typically will act to quell public furor in the face of scandal by tweaking laws rather than by making comprehensive changes, and then once the scandal has passed, old habits will eventually return.
Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist for the group, Public Citizen, says lobbyists and lawmakers are now crawling through a gaping loophole in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act that is allowing lawmakers once again to be feted to lavish traveling by lobbyists. The Ethics committees are allowing lobbyists to establish 501(c)3 tax-exempt, non-profit arms, through which money can be funneled to sponsor congressional travel. These 501(c)3 groups exist on paper only, according to Holman. They then pay for congressional travel that the law was intended to bar.
Holman said that congressional trips should be limited to those sponsored by the government, to avoid the taint of lobbyists seeking something in return for giving free travel to members of Congress. But, he adds, the disclosure system for government travel is weak, and it often is difficult to determine the cost of congressional trips on the government tab.
It can be difficult, or even impossible, to pinpoint the precise costs of government trips for each individual member of a congressional delegation, since many congressmen and staff members often are included on the mission, and government aircraft are used in almost all cases.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that government spending on congressional travel has increased almost 10-fold since 1995.