One of the perks of holding public office is that there's no dearth of organizations that are happy to send you on "fact-finding" trips around the world.
And for members of Congress and their aides, 2014 was no different. This week, the congressional data service Legistorm released data documenting "nearly 2,000 privately sponsored trips." LegiStorm's report found that congressional travel to 50 countries totaled $5.1 million in 2014. By comparison, private groups spent nearly $6 million on 1,887 trips in 2013.
One of the duties of being a member of Congress is not just representing your district, but your country through congressional delegation trips. But it can be difficult to determine the ratio of business and pleasure during these trips. The trips were funded by an array of nebulously named private groups like "Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc," and can often include a fair amount of sightseeing in addition to business.
Republicans signed off on 1,186 trips in 2014, while Democrats signed off on 730 trips. However, trips approved by Republicans and Democrats totaled roughly the same amount ($2.5 million and $2.4 million, respectively).
Israel was the most popular destination for privately funded travel, with 122 trips totaling $1.5 million. Turkey was the second most popular destination, with 67 trips costing around $375,000. Cuba came in seventh, with 22 trips paid by private groups at a cost of about $71,000.
Rep. Mike McIntyre, who retired in January, took two trips in 2014 that totaled more than $67,000. Last February, the North Carolina Democrat traveled to Australia for a week to attend "defense related briefings" and meet with "officials within the defense industry." The trip cost nearly $50,000 — the most expensive trip LegiStorm documented since it began tracking trips in 2000. It was paid for by Defence Teaming Centre Inc., the defense industry association of South Australia.
Lawmakers say that these trips are not pay-to-play vacations, and are necessary to build working relationships overseas. "There are never any lobbyists on the trips where I go," Rep. Diana Degette, a Colorado Democrat, recently told Roll Call.
Still, when members of Congress travel on the dime of private entities, the line between simple fact-finding and lobbying can quickly blur. In June, the House Ethics committee quietly stripped a provision that required members of Congress to disclose privately funded travel. After National Journal published a story on the deleted disclosure requirement, the committee quickly reversed course.
Members of Congress will be quick to point out that these lavish trips are not taxpayer-funded; however, the time that they spend to go on these trips is funded, indirectly, by the taxpayers who put them in office.