US lawmakers resume globe-trotting paid by special interests

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Members of Congress and their staffers rebounded from pandemic travel anxiety in 2022, accepting more than $6.6 million worth of airline tickets, hotel rooms and meals paid for by special interest groups.

The total of 1,785 trips that were paid for by outside organizations last year was up from 829 trips in 2021, and 321 in 2020, when travel was limited by coronavirus restrictions, according to a database of disclosures compiled by the nonpartisan data service LegiStorm LLC.

Destinations included more than 40 foreign countries, including Israel, Spain and Japan, as well as U.S. cities such as Las Vegas, New Orleans and Miami.

Picking up the tab for lawmakers and members of their staffs were some of the most active lobbying groups in Washington, like the Motion Picture Association Inc., the American Gaming Association, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and a charitable organization affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Some of the lawmakers took spouses and other family members, also free of cost, on the excursions. Kevin McCarthy, now the House speaker, brought his mother along on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel.

“Privately sponsored travel for members of Congress is one of the most effective tools of influence-peddling by businesses and special interest groups,” Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan group that emphasizes government accountability. “It is noteworthy that these trips are almost always to ideal vacation spots and not to troubled lands, such as Ukraine.”

The trips are separate from taxpayer-paid congressional delegation travel, typically taken overseas and involve military transportation.

The $26,847 tab for McCarthy and his mother, Roberta McCarthy, was picked up by the AIPAC-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. The foundation also paid $13,805 for current House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York to participate in all-Democratic delegation trip to Israel at about the same time (the Republicans had their own).

McCarthy didn’t respond to a request for comment. But in his application for the trip to the House Ethics Committee, he described it as an “educational trip to meet officials and representatives to get updates and better understand the current geopolitical, economic, and regional challenges in this important area, and their effect on our national security.”

The trip included VIP treatment at the airport, luxury hotel stays on the Sea of Galilee and guided visits to ancient sites. The itinerary took them to Israel’s borders with the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, a stop at an Iron Dome anti-missile system battery, and an opportunity to go inside a so-called Hezbollah terror tunnel. There were also audiences with Israeli leaders.

Israel was by far the top destination for the free travel, by dollars — no doubt a reflection of the nation’s role as a crucial ally in the Middle East and a top recipient of American aid. Shoring up support in Washington has grown more important as criticism mounts over Israeli treatment of Palestinians and its move away from a two-state peace plan.

The sponsored travel is legal and each trip has to be submitted for advance approval from the ethics panel of the lawmaker’s chamber to be sure it meets the rules Congress sets for itself. But critics say those rules should be stricter and that the trip sponsors are buying the lawmakers’ time and attention in ways the average person cannot.

The most frequent international destinations for Republicans were Israel, Egypt, Spain, Japan and Kenya. Tops for Democrats were Israel, the U.K., Japan, Iceland and Belgium. Overseas trips were paid for by a variety of policy institutes, universities and educational foundations, such as the United Nations Foundation, the Korea Society, the nonpartisan Aspen Institute, the Conservative Climate Foundation Inc., and the Ripon Society, a Republican policy group.

Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican. racked up the most travel, dollar-wise, reporting $80,610 worth of sponsored trips. His three excursions included one to Madrid last November with his wife, Angie, for a “TransAtlantic Capital to Capital Exchange,” attended by other lawmakers. He also went to Israel with his son, a visit paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation.

“These trips are approved by House Ethics, follow all guidelines, and didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime,” Bacon said in a statement. “They provided an opportunity to expand my knowledge on issues by seeing things first-hand as well as strengthen diplomatic ties with our allies.”

“I appreciate the opportunity to bring along one family member when approved by the Ethics Committee,” he added.

Rep. Lou Correa, a California Democrat, reported the single most expensive privately funded trip, to Israel. Joined by his wife, Esther, the trip’s cost was listed as $46,713 and paid for by the U.S. Israel Education Association.

In all, Correa reported $58,315 worth of travel in four trips — including one to Reykjavik, Iceland, again with his wife, focused on agriculture and trade and funded by the Aspen Institute Inc. Congressional Program. The couple also traveled to Las Vegas so he could participate in discussions on emerging technology policies, a trip paid by the Consumer Technology Association whose members include Apple Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and Services Inc.

He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In the Senate, the number of privately paid-for trips was generally lower. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, is listed as taking the most. Her three trips included one to Israel valued at $23,303, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Some of the travel was logged by lawmakers who had announced their retirements. Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, for example, reported four trips last year costing $68,386, to Madrid, Reykjavik, Geneva and the Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Tiberias.

Upton said his travel complied with House rules and “was not at taxpayer expense.” He said the conference in Madrid was a commitment he’d made before his retirement announcement.

Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said there are government-paid options for fact-finding trips.

He questioned why spouses and children — or mothers — are tagging along, for free, “especially if you’re calling it something to do in the context of your official duty as a member of Congress.”

“I would certainly enjoy an all-expenses paid trip with my wife to an exotic destination overseas,” Hedtler-Gaudette said. “But I’m not a member of Congress and I’m not claiming that it’s a part of my job to do that trip.”