Washington — Five years ago Congress took what it considered big steps to curb the free trips lawmakers receive from special interests, but their popularity is on the rise again.
In the past 18 months, Connecticut lawmakers, and members of their staff, have flown to Israel, Belgium, China, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Turkey and spots closer to home like Sea Island — a luxury resort in Georgia — at others’ expense.
These trips are different from those lawmakers take at taxpayer expense, and they were criticized for years as a corrupting way lobbyists and advocates could buy the attention of lawmakers and key staff members.
Privately funded trips dwindled after Congress took steps in 2007 to bar all trips from groups and interests that hire lobbyists.
But Craig Holman, an expert on Congress who works for Public Citizen, the 40-year-old government watchdog group, said the number of congressional trips has risen to pre-2007 levels.
Numbers seem to bear this out. According to LegiStorm, an open government website, in 2008, the first full year the reforms were in effect, members of the U.S. House and Senate and their staff took a combined 1,171 trips valued at about $2.9 million. Last year the number of trips rose to 1,615, and their total cost increased to $5.9 million.
The reason for the surge: Special interests found a loophole in the congressional ethics laws that barred all groups with lobbyists from offering members of Congress free trips, Holman said.
“Within the last year, they realized all they had to do is set up a separate charity, even if it’s only on paper, to fund the trips,” Holman said. “Charities can pay for travel junkets as long as the charity itself has not hired a lobbyist.”
The best example of this, Holman said, is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a fierce defender of Israel which has long been a top funder of congressional travel. After travel reforms took effect, AIPAC formed a foundation so it could continue the practice. It sent 81 House members to Israel last August.
It also paid for Marshall Wittman, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s communications director, and for Jason Cole, the chief of staff of Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, to visit Israel in February 2011. The cost of each trip was nearly $9,000.
AIPAC also gave Ellis Brachman, the press secretary of Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, a trip to Israel last December. And it gave Jessica Elledge, the scheduler and legislative aide on foreign issues for Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, a trip to Israel in June. Each cost more than $6,000.
Lieberman said this week that he continues to take domestic trips paid for by special interests but stopped taking foreign trips at someone else’s expense because “those sometimes raised questions.”
But he said he sees nothing wrong in staffers accepting free trips overseas — which, by Senate rules, he has to approve.
“I encourage them to travel just for their own education,” Lieberman said.
He approved trips to Belgium and Sweden last year for Blas Nuñez-Neto, on the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. Nuñez-Neto’s trip was covered by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
Lieberman also approved a trip to Tokyo last year for his policy adviser, Vance Serchuk, that was funded by the Project 2049 Institute, an organization that focuses on security issues in Asia.
Lieberman, who is ranked by Legistorm as one of the top travelers in Congress, has traveled frequently last year within the confines of the United States.
Last year he went to New York, New Jersey, Utah and Georgia at the expense of his publisher, Simon and Schuster, Brigham Young University, the Gershon Jacobson Foundation and a couple of Jewish community centers. He took advantage of these trips to promote his latest book, “The Gift of Rest,” which brought him about $31,000 in royalties last year.
“All trips taken by the senator to talk about his recent book are within strict compliance with all Senate rules and are at no expense to the taxpayers,” said Lieberman press secretary Whitney Phillips. “All expenses for these trips were covered by the publisher and outside organizations, and did not interfere with his official duties.”
Lieberman also accepted a second trip to Georgia from the conservative American Enterprise Institute to attend a policy conference. The senator took his wife along to the Cloister resort on Sea Island. The trip cost more than $3,000.
Larson visited China last year at the expense of a foundation that seeks better U.S.-China relations. He also allowed members of his staff to take special interest-sponsored trips to Turkey, Panama, California and the resort town of Rehoboth Beach, Del. — besides the previously mentioned trip to Israel.
“I believe it is important for my staff to take advantage of trips that provide them with an education,” Larson said.
Last year, the Connecticut District Export Council paid for Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, to visit the United Kingdom, and the Connecticut Dental Association paid for a trip to Boston.
Himes traveled last month to Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, at the expense of the New York-based Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit that says it wants to solve international problems by “putting the pieces back together through the creation of unique public-private partnerships.”
“I’ve never been a big traveler,” Himes said. “But these trips are appropriate as long as they are about work.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-2nd District, has not taken any privately financed trips recently or approved them for her staff, though she has in the past.
Murphy has not taken any free trips, but has authorized a few for his staff, including the AIPAC trip.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has not accepted privately funded trips since he assumed office last year. But he has authorized a staff member to travel to Guatemala at the expense of a foundation that advocates greater access to birth control for women in Third World countries. Another Blumenthal aide was allowed to go to Philadelphia to attend a management seminar sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Blumenthal said his office is offered many free trips, and he screens them carefully.
“We have turned down many,” the senator said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said today’s congressional trips are more often focused on work related to office duties than they were before the reforms of 2007.
Back then, lobbyists like Jack Abramoff spent millions of dollars hosting lavish trips to resorts and other desirable destinations whose whole purpose was to influence lawmakers and their offices.
Sloan also said it is valuable for members of Congress and congressional staffers to travel to broaden their knowledge of the nation and the world.
“But on the other hand, a trip to Paris or to the Caribbean in January by someone who wants a favor can still be troubling,” Sloan said.