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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.
A representative of AIPAC and the foundation, which normally do not comment on Congressional travel, confirmed that the trips of some Members cost more than anticipated because of flight changes and extra nights of lodging during Hurricane Irene.
Rep. John Carter could be in the running for the most expensive trip in August once Palazzo's travel disclosure form is amended. The Texas Republican reported going on a trip with his wife to Johannesburg, South Africa, and Botswana that cost the International Conservation Caucus Foundation about $30,000. The two spent more than a week in Africa learning about wildlife and visiting game preserves, among other excursions, the submitted itinerary shows.
Other expensive trips include the nearly $29,000 the Conservation Caucus spent to send Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and his wife on a similar trip to Africa and the week Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) spent in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with his brother, which cost the humanitarian organization CARE about the same.
Other organizations that sponsored trips in August include the Aspen Institute, the Center for Democracy in the Americas and the Congressional Black Caucus Political Education & Leadership Institute.
Jock Friedly of the website LegiStorm, which tracks Congressional salaries, travel and gifts, said the cost of some of the August trips approach the record for the most expensive junket set by then-Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.) and his wife in July 2000, when the Brown and Williamson Tobacco company paid $31,170 for a five day excursion to London. That voyage was years before Congress revised its travel approval process.
"Of the 20 most expensive over time, eight of them are from this year," Friedly said of the recent travel disclosures.
The tallies reported for August trips taken by lawmakers do not encompass all of the outside money spent on Congressional travel. Some disclosure forms continue to trickle in after the filing deadline. The figure also does not include trips taken by Hill staffers, which considerably increase the amount of travel financed by private organizations.
When the cost of sending staff members is added, for example, the total cost of private travel in August surpasses $2 million, Friedly said. The overall cost of the trips to Israel paid for by AIPAC's foundation alone grows to more than $1.5 million when staffers are included.
"Congress definitely has its wings back. Since the reforms, this has definitely been the most expensive year yet for Congressional travel and we've only seen two thirds of the year," Friedly said.