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Rep. Steven Palazzo and his wife took a $30,000 trip to Israel. Some charitable groups are allowed to fund Member travel, an opportunity lawmakers took advantage of in August to the tune of $1.5 million.
The amount of money spent in August sending Members of Congress on privately financed travel shattered previous monthly records, with outside groups spending more than $1.5 million to send lawmakers and their family members to locations in the United States and abroad, according to a Roll Call analysis of recently filed travel disclosure forms.
Just four years after Congress tightened restrictions on privately funded travel, more than 100 lawmakers took trips financed by private organizations in August to locations that included Colorado, Mongolia, South Africa, Israel and Las Vegas, Nevada, with the most expensive excursions weighing in at about $30,000.
The previous record for the past decade was set in August 2003, when just more than $1 million was spent by outside groups on Congressional travel.
Though both the House and the Senate restrict businesses and lobbying groups from sending lawmakers on most lengthy trips, Senators are still permitted to accept travel paid for by 501(c)(3) charitable organizations that are permitted to engage in limited lobbying. The House carved out a similar exception for colleges and universities.
Campaign Legal Center Policy Director Meredith McGehee, who worked on the 2007 reforms, said she was not surprised by the August figures.
"We did the best we could at that time, but we were left with loopholes we didn't necessarily support," McGehee said. "Washington is very, very flexible that way — people get paid lots of money to figure those [loopholes] out."
The hefty August tally was driven in part by a biennial trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation that at least 65 Members went on this year. The foundation, which is the charitable arm of the pro-Israel lobbying organization the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, spent at least $1.18 million sending lawmakers, their spouses, their children and other relatives on all-expenses-paid trips to Israel in August, according to disclosures currently filed with the Clerk of the House.
The most expensive trip reported for August was the foundation-sponsored week that Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and his wife spent in Israel, which cost $30,616, according to travel disclosures. A Palazzo representative said the overall cost will end up being less than that because Continental Airlines has refunded a portion of the Palazzos' airfare, which was high because of extra return tickets purchased during Hurricane Irene. Palazzo's office confirmed on Monday that it would be submitting amended travel disclosure forms to the Ethics Committee.
"The airline has informed us they will refund $3,408.15 for both Mrs. and Rep. Palazzo's original tickets. Therefore, the Palazzo's flight costs were $7,683.67 per person, not $11,091.82 per person as originally submitted to the Ethics Committee," the foundation's travel coordinator told Palazzo's office.