Congress Took More Free Trips in 2013 Than in Any Year Since Lobbying Reforms

Israel was the most popular destination, accounting for $2 million in travel. Israel was the most popular destination, accounting for $2 million in travel. sangaku/Shutterstock.com

Members of Congress and their aides took more free trips around the world in 2013 than in any year since new restrictions were put in place after the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.

The website LegiStorm, which compiles congressional travel records, said Monday that lawmakers and their staffs took a combined 1,887 free trips last year for a total cost of almost $6 million.

That amount is more than double the sum private groups spent on congressional trips in 2008, the first full year that the tightened travel rules of 2007 went into effect. The total number of trips has bounded upward by more than 60 percent since 2008 as well.

Last year, lawmakers enjoyed all-expenses-paid journeys to Ireland, Morocco, France, South Africa, Israel, Turkey, and many more destinations, according to House travel records.

Lobbyists and those who employ them have not been allowed to directly finance privately funded congressional travel abroad since 2007. But as National Journal documented earlier this year, many of the private interests footing the bill for international congressional travel are tied closely to lobbying operations in Washington.

Some even share staff and office space with lobbying shops. The America Israel Education Foundation, which spent $1.7 million on congressional travel in 2013, more than any other group, shares an address with the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, for instance.

Overall, Israel was the most popular destination, accounting for $2 million in travel—more than one-third of the total travel expenses to all destinations.

The total number of congressional trips still hasn't reached the peak of 2003 through 2005, when there were more than 4,000 annual congressional voyages at an average cost of about $10 million.

But the number has been steadily climbing since Congress began tightening its rules close to seven years ago, as the stigma of flying abroad on a private group's dime has dimmed. The previous high, under the current rules, was 1,621 trips that cost $5.88 million in 2011, according to LegiStorm.

Lawmakers are allowed—and often do—bring their spouses along on the trips, adding to the allure. While the itineraries must be approved in advance by the House Ethics Committee, the trips don't always sound too stressful.

In one of the last trips a lawmaker took in 2013, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and his wife headed to Puerto Rico in December. They stayed at the El Conquistador Resort, a Waldorf Astoria property "uniquely nestled on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea," according to its website.

The Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference picked up the tab. The annual meeting's theme was "Succeeding in a Time of Austerity."

(Image via sangaku/Shutterstock.com)

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