There was a time when members of Congress could see the world on the taxpayer’s dime or at the expense of lobbyists and other special interests legislation.
Members of the House and Senate can still travel on official business at the expense of the government – provided the trip is even tangentially related to their work in Congress. But much of the extra-curricular travel to sunny climes and fashionable tourist spots at the expense of private interests came to an end after a series of scandals involving notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Today, a House member, senator or staff may still accept travel expenses to attend a meeting, speaking engagement, fact-finding trip or similar event related to official duties, from a private source – but only if the private source is not a registered lobbyist or foreign agent and is directly associated with the event. Moreover, the location of the trip must bear some reasonable relationship to the officially -connected purpose of the trip, and overseas travel can’t exceed a week.
Even with these new restrictions, members of Congress have found plenty of opportunities to get out of town with their spouses and broaden their horizon, according to a report on Thursday by Roll Call.
Private groups sent members of Congress and their staffs on 1,942 trips last year, which was more than in any year since Congress tightened its rules in 2007 on outside groups that pay for travel. The total bill for travel to domestic locales and across the globe — including Belgium, Colombia, Cuba, Israel, Italy and Turkey — topped $5.1 million in 2014, according to Roll Call. The publication’s analysis was based on records maintained by the website Legistorm.
Roll Call identified Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), as one of the top travelers in Congress. The Democratic lawmaker said she advises incoming House freshmen to select one or two countries they are interested in and really steeped themselves in those countries’ politics and culture. For DeGette, that country is Japan, which she said has a huge business and cultural connection to her district in Denver.
Last February, DeGette and her husband traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, for the week-long Congress-Diet Seminar. That was a $23,687 trip, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, in which she is co-chairman of the Congressional Study Group on Japan.
She said that she traveled with a small group of House members and their spouses and met with foreign journalists, government officials and Japanese lawmakers. They also found time to tour a Buddhist temple, shrine and other cultural sites.
Ranked strictly by cost, last year’s top traveler was Rep. Mike McIntyre ( D-N.C.), who retired at the end of the 113th Congress last December after accepting trips worth $67,295 in 2014. The highlight of his travel was an extended trip with his wife to the southern coast of Australia.
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