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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.
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.