Members of the Budget and Appropriations committees have spent about $2 million on foreign travel since the start of 2016, including trips to Argentina, Tanzania, Italy and the United Kingdom, according to an analysis of congressional records.
Appropriations Committee members far outpace their colleagues on the Budget Committee in the number of trips and how much they've spent on travel outside the United States. From Jan. 1, 2016 through March 31, 2017, Appropriations Committee members and staff spent $1.9 million on foreign travel and Budget Committee members and staff spent $36,000.
Staff travel is a significant chunk of the total committee travel amount, with key aides often traveling abroad — sometimes with congressional delegations, or CODELs, and sometimes independently of lawmakers.
The trips are part of the unlimited pot of money that Congress can tap for foreign travel, which is arranged by the State Department and paid for by the Treasury Department.
“Official travel helps the Committee and the Congress identify areas of need or waste, prioritize future projects, and provides critical information necessary to make the best possible funding decisions and the most out of every dollar,” Jennifer Hing, House Appropriations Committee spokeswoman, said in a statement. “Putting boots on the ground is often the only way to gain this important perspective.” Stephen Worley, spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, had a similar answer, saying in a statement: “The firsthand knowledge of on-the-ground realities helps inform the Committee’s work as it drafts legislation funding federal programs.”
The analysis focused on foreign travel by the Budget and Appropriations committees because they are the two key fiscal panels in Congress. Their members set the toplines for discretionary spending and divvy up funding for each of the 12 individual spending bills, wielding enormous influence.
The House Appropriations panel includes 52 lawmakers, 30 of whom are Republicans and 22 of whom are Democrats. The Senate Appropriations Committee includes 31 lawmakers — 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats.
The Budget committees are slightly smaller. The House committee has 36 members, with 22 Republicans and 14 Democrats. The Senate Budget Committee includes 23 senators — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
The most-traveled member of either committee during the five-quarter time frame is Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who visited 16 countries. He is a member of the Defense and Homeland Security subcommittees.
He’s followed by Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who visited 11; he sits on the Defense, Labor-HHS-Education and Military Construction-VA subcommittees. Next was Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who traveled to 10. He also chairs the Defense Subcommittee and sits on the Agriculture, Energy-Water, Homeland Security, Interior-Environment and Labor-HHS-Education subcommittees.
The former chairman of the House Budget Committee, Tom Price, R-Ga., traveled to the Philippines and Australia. Current House Budget Chairwoman Diane Black, R-Tenn., has not filed any foreign travel reports under the Budget Committee.
Former House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., visited seven countries; Current House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., went to four countries; and Senate Budget Chairman Michael B. Enzi traveled to six countries, all between Jan. 1, 2016 and March 31, 2017.
The countries visited range from ideal vacation locations to active war zones, and from nations that strongly align with U.S. foreign interests to those that are unlikely to roll out the red carpet for members of Congress.
In July 2016, Frelinghuysen traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar on a six-day trip that cost $11,686.
During the first quarter of that year, Enzi traveled to Australia, Singapore, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Spain. He used the Department of Defense for transportation and his per diem totaled $2,389, but the total cost is unclear because DOD does not have to disclose travel costs.
Enzi’s trip was organized by Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., and was designed so lawmakers could visit the U.S. Pacific Command, U.S. Africa Command and U.S. European Command. During those visits, Enzi and others met with military members, ambassadors and embassy staff.
“The focus of the meetings were on national security, counter terrorism, ongoing contingency operations, bilateral and multilateral cooperation, trade, commerce and infrastructure,” Max D’Onofrio, Enzi’s spokesman, said in a statement.
The more popular countries for members of the House Appropriations Committees to travel to during this time frame were Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ireland, Italy, Peru and Spain. Senate Appropriations Committee members traveled more frequently to France, Japan and the United Kingdom.
But it’s not just lawmakers who take foreign trips. Staff have accompanied lawmakers on many of their trips and often take delegation trips without members.
For example, four House Appropriations staffers took a 10-day trip to Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica from Jan. 30, 2016 through Feb. 8, 2016. The total cost of the trip — which was taken by then-Staff Director Will Smith, Deputy Staff Director Jim Kulikowski, staff member Leslie Albright and staff Member B.G. Wright — was more than $56,000.
Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One, a nonpartisan group that says it is “dedicated to political reform and government ethics in order to strengthen democracy and return government to the American people,” said that staff travel can be “much better and more productive” than member travel.
“If you are a staffer you can get to places you could never get to with a member of Congress and learn so much more. With a member of Congress, the CODELs have a little bit of a dog and pony show,” McGehee said. “With staff travel, you can really get behind the scenes. You can talk to people.”
The most popular time for staff or members to travel abroad is the third quarter of each year, which is also when Congress breaks for the August recess.
The House Appropriations Committee logged $374,000 in travel during that quarter of 2016, which outpaces the $314,000 spent during the fourth quarter of 2016, which came in second. The Senate Appropriations Committee spent $380,000 during the third quarter of 2016, which was considerably more than the $138,000 logged in the second-most traveled quarter of that year – the first quarter.
The Appropriations Committee does not set a limit on the number of trips that members and staff can take.
In order to travel abroad, a committee member must get the permission of the chairman and the State Department. The trip is then financed by the Treasury Department with a fund that does not have an annual limit set through the appropriations process.
The process is similar to that of other House panels.
The trips are disclosed in the Congressional Record about two months after the quarter ends. The forms list the dates, countries and amount of money spent on per diem, other purposes and transportation, unless the travel is through the Department of Defense.
Lawmakers and staff are not required to explain why they took the trips, with whom they met, or how the foreign travel relates to their committee assignments.
“I find it just ridiculous that we don’t have a complete and online disclosure system for all of these foreign travels,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “I find it even more ridiculous that we don’t have a set budget for it.”
The amount of money Congress spends annually on travel outside of the country has steadily increased in recent years. During 2015, lawmakers and staff spent about $11 million and that number increased to $19.4 million during 2016, according to Holman and a recent report in USA Today.
But the Treasury Department’s reported numbers differ – sometimes by quite a bit – from the detail in the congressional reports. That is one of the reasons Holman wants the reports to become more detailed and easier to access.
“Even though official travel may not be a source of corruption, it can be an abuse to tax dollars,” he said.
McGehee said she supports lawmakers traveling abroad, because that allows them to better understand the implications of policies they’ve implemented. “If you are going to make policy that affects the world, which is what we do here in America, you need to have first-hand experience,” McGehee said.
But she says members need to provide more information when returning from those trips, so that taxpayers know they were traveling abroad to work, not play.
“If it’s going to be on the taxpayer dollar, it should be a trip that has a fairly robust policy agenda and you only know that if the agenda is disclosed,” McGehee said, noting that the schedule could be released after the trip is over to avoid any security concerns. “Is it truly a working trip, or is the travel being used as a pretext for vacation?”
While many Republican lawmakers have privately grumbled over President Donald Trump’s response to the violence that turned deadly in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, most stopped short of calling out the president by name.
Not Rep. Paul Mitchell, who tagged Trump’s @POTUS account on Twitter Tuesday to tell the president, “You can’t be a ‘very fine person’ and be a white supremacist.”
You can't be a "very fine person" and be a white supremacist @POTUS
“We need to be careful how we express things,” Mitchell told CNN’s “Outfront” on Wednesday night.
“The KKK, neo-Nazis, are fundamentally opposed to what our Constitution is about, which is equality of all men, so it’s pretty simple to call them out.”
And Mitchell disagreed with Trump’s assessment that “very fine people” were involved in the originally scheduled protests.
“I don’t believe you can be a fine person and a white supremacist,” he said. “They’re mutually exclusive, can’t use them in the same line.”
The way he sees it, Mitchell said, “fine people... get out of Dodge” when they see others holding swastika-emblazoned flags and objects and yelling Nazi slogans.
“They leave, they get out of the area,” he said. “You don’t stick around to see what happens. So, unfortunately, I don’t buy the argument that somehow fine people got caught up in this.”
After Charlottesville police on Saturday declared an unlawful assembly and cleared the area around the statue, skirmishes broke out between pockets of protesters and counter-protesters. They carried shields and clubs, hurled rocks, and unleashed strings of obscenities at each other.
James Alex Fields, Jr., 20, of Ohio, was arrested for allegedly plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and sending 19 people to the hospital.
Fields was charged with one count of second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and failing to stop at the scene of a crash that resulted in death.
The Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the incident.
In his interview Wednesday, Mitchell called for more civility in the political arena and warned that violence was counterproductive to achieving results.
“People can disagree without throwing punches, using clubs, and when you get to that, it’s destructive,” he said.
“I serve in Congress with people across the aisle. I don’t agree with them and some of them are my good friends. Even when we have heated debates, I certainly wouldn’t punch them. Let’s be adults here and make a difference. That’s why I went to Congress.”
Democrats Seize on Tom Garrett’s Meeting with Kessler
Virginia Rep. Tom Garrett says he didn’t know who Jason Kessler was when the white nationalist leader met with him in his Capitol Hill office in March.
Democrats aren’t buying it.
Kessler organized the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday that led to the death of one person and many more being injured. Charlottesville is in Garrett’s 5th District.
Some liberals are hopeful that Garrett, a freshman in a lower-tier race next year, now has a tougher re-election on his hands.
“It’s an opportunity to put a race in play that wasn’t last week,” said Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of VoteVets, the Democratic PAC that recruits and supports veterans running for Congress.
VoteVets is raising awareness about Garrett's meeting with Kessler — which the congressman has since dismissed as an “occupational hazard” — and about his Democratic challenger, a Marine veteran.
VoteVets sent out a fundraising email to its supporters on Tuesday about Democrat Roger Dean Huffstetler, whom it wasn’t planning to officially endorse until later this summer. Within the first six hours, the group had raised $10,000 from 365 donors. (Contributions were split between the Huffstetler campaign and VoteVets.)
“Do you want to strike a blow against white supremacy? Let’s defeat one of the leaders who has coddled the modern day leaders of that movement,” the email reads.
Virginia’s 5th District is rated solidly Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. National Republican made a late investment in the district last year, with Congressional Leadership Fund pouring in nearly $1 million to shore up the open seat. But President Donald Trump and Garrett easily won the district by 11 and 17 points, respectively.
The last time a Democrat won the seat (former Rep. Tom Perriello in 2008), the district voted for the GOP presidential candidate by just 3 points.
But Democrats already included Garrett, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, on their target list earlier this year. Since violence broke out in Charlottesville on Saturday, Democrats pounced on Garrett’s connection to Kessler.
“It is up to every American to stand up to this bigotry and hate, but particularly Congressman Tom Garrett, who represents this district and appears to have helped legitimize these groups by meeting with the event’s organizer Jason Kessler,” said Cole Leiter, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in a midday Saturday statement. The DCCC called on Garrett to take a “strong and immediate stand against these protests” and said he wasn’t fit to serve in Congress if he didn’t. The DCCC's communication director tweeted about Garrett: “Let’s keep our eye on the prize, Dems: beating House Republicans.”Since the rally, Garrett has been outspoken against this weekend’s violence and Kessler. In an interview Sunday with Fox News’ America’s News Headquarters, Garrett's message for Kessler was, “Go away.”
When asked if his meeting with Kessler “mainstreams” his views, the congressman agreed.
“Oh I do think it does. ... but what I’m telling you is I didn’t know who that cat was at that point in time,” Garrett said. “I know who he is now, and I don’t like him any more than anyone else does.”
Garrett added that he’s been condemning Kessler’s actions and views since May and that he regrets the meeting.
Garrett said he regularly takes meetings with constituents, but it’s not clear how his office missed who Kessler was. Neither his campaign nor his office responded to questions about the meeting.
For Democrats, defeating Garrett also means building up his challenger. Soltz suggested this is an opportunity for Huffstetler to raise money and his profile, similar to how some Democratic challengers this cycle have been able to raise money from campaign videos that have gone viral.
“This is a huge opportunity for RD and his team to demonstrate the fact they have unique, fresh leader who is a young Marine who served people of all colors and religions.That’s the contrast in this district,” Soltz said.
Huffstetler spoke with MSNBC’s Joy Reid on Sunday, but he didn’t mention the congressman. In the days since the rally, he’s attended community discussions about the violence.
“The community here is still reeling from the events from this weekend and are working toward rebuilding and healing,” campaign spokesman Kevin Zeithaml said Tuesday.
“At some point before we are able to move past this, the Congressman must be held accountable for meeting with the white supremacist who brought this hatred to our city,” he added.
Talk of campaign politics around any incident of violence can be touchy. The Virginia Republican Party accused the DCCC of trying to score political points with their attacks on Tuesday.
But Soltz says it’s Garrett, not VoteVets or the Democrats, who have made this a political issue.
“Garrett politicized it when he met with a white nationalist Nazi,” Soltz said. “We didn’t start that, Congressman Garrett did.“I don’t care if he apologized. It’s not going away,” Soltz said. “You can’t apologize for meeting with Nazis.”
GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold said Wednesday that he would run for re-election in 2018, even though his southern Texas district might need to be redrawn.
A federal panel ruled Tuesday that the boundaries for Farenthold’s 27th District and the 35th District, represented by Democrat Lloyd Doggett, violated the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. The court ruled that the districts were drawn primarily on the basis of race. The Republican-controlled state government signaled it would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
“I believe the court errored in its decision and I trust the Supreme Court will get it right,” Farenthold said in a statement. “No matter what the Supreme Court decides, I plan to run for re-election.”
Doggett said Tuesday night that he also planned to run for re-election. He said the court’s decision showed that “[w]hat Republicans did was not just wrong, it was unconstitutional.”
The court concluded that Hispanic voters were placed into an Anglo-majority 27th District, and those Hispanic voters “were intentionally deprived of their right to elect candidates of their choice.”
In the 35th District, the court affirmed an earlier decision that voters were moved into the district “to intentionally destroy an existing [neighboring] district with significant minority population (both African American and Hispanic) that consistently elected a Democrat.”
Redrawing the lines to accommodate the court’s concerns could affect their partisan leaning and shift the lines in nearby districts. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales currently rates the 27th as Solid Republican and the 35th as Solid Democrat.