House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (left) speaks with Israeli President Shimon Peres during a trip last month that was paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation.
The House Ethics Manual acknowledges that “travel may be among the most attractive and expensive gifts” that a Member can receive, which is why in 2007 the rules were revised to “ban lobbyist involvement in planning, organizing, requesting or arranging most trips.”
Any Member who wishes to participate in a privately sponsored trip must receive written permission from the House Ethics Committee and submit a pre-trip certification confirming the trip was not financed by a lobbyist or foreign agent.
Obtaining approval for a trip appears to be largely a formality: Of the 1,500 requests the committee received in 2010, more than 1,300 were approved, according to an Ethics Committee annual report.
The Senate travel rules are similar, except Senators are permitted to go on trips sponsored by any 501(c)(3) charitable organization, even though they are permitted to engage in limited lobbying. The House carved out a similar exception for colleges and universities.
Tax records and other public documents show how closely organizations that fund Congressional travel can be linked to lobbying entities.
The American Israel Education Foundation and AIPAC, for example, share an address, employees and board members. The AIPAC website in the past has encouraged its supporters to give to the foundation, which does not have its own website. Foundation Executive Director Richard Fishman, who signs off on the Congressional travel forms filed with the Ethics Committee, receives his $395,000 annual salary from AIPAC, as do the foundation’s other paid employees. The foundation’s single largest expenditure in 2009 was $13,503,472 it transferred to AIPAC for educational programs, according to tax records. More than a fifth of AIPAC’s revenue that year came in the form of grants from the foundation, according to the organizations’ most recent tax records. AIPAC spent $2.75 million last year lobbying the federal government.
As in years past, last month’s trips included mostly Members of the House. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) led a group of at least 25 Democratic lawmakers and four of his staffers just days after Congress broke for recess. The next week, Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) guided as many as 32 Members, 26 family members and five staffers, according to the invite list.
Other groups that sponsor Congressional travel also maintain close ties to lobbying groups, records show.
The international humanitarian Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, for example, reports in its filings to the IRS that it is affiliated with an entity called Care Action Now, which spent $385,000 last year lobbying Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Center for American Progress, which seeks to promote progressive ideals to “critique the policy that stems from conservative values,” does not report a formal affiliation with a lobbying group. Its annual tax return, however, shows that the nonprofit gave a cash grant of almost $5.6 million in 2009 — the most recent year for which records are available — to a related group called the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The fund spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress that year. The two organizations list the same address and telephone number.
An organization representative pointed out that Senate rules allow all 501(c)(3)s to sponsor travel — last year CAP sent six Senate staffers to China — and said even the action fund’s primary purpose is social welfare, not lobbying.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.