Private groups spent almost $6 million to send Members of Congress and staff on trips last year, more than in any year since Congress tightened its restrictions on outside groups paying for travel in 2007.
The total bill for sending lawmakers and their staffers on more than 1,500 trips often to far-flung locations such as Austria, Egypt, Israel and Turkey weighed in at about $5.8 million last year and could rise as late filers submit their post-travel disclosure forms, according to a Roll Call analysis of records maintained by the website LegiStorm.
Watchdog groups say the nearly $2.5 million increase from the year before is a sign that the travel restrictions adopted as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 are no longer working and there seems to be little willingness or initiative among the Members on the House Ethics Committee to revisit the rules.
"It's really quite a pity, too," said Public Citizen's Craig Holman, who worked with Congress on the reform effort. "The travel restriction was one of the major accomplishments we really did achieve ... and now the Ethics Committee seems to be letting it fall to the wayside."
An Ethics Committee representative declined to comment on the issue at this time. The committee has a working group on travel rules, but it is not clear whether that group has any live proposals for revising the rules.
The travel restrictions were amended in 2007 as part of a larger effort to curb the influence of lobbying on lawmaking. In addition to extending the "cooling-off period" between leaving Congress and becoming a lobbyist, banning gifts from registered lobbyists and heightening disclosure requirements, the law also prohibited businesses and other groups that employ lobbyists from sending lawmakers on most lengthy trips, though it carved out several exceptions.
For a time it seemed the new rules had their intended effect. With trips financed by entities that employ lobbyists capped at one day, the year-end tally for privately funded Congressional travel dropped from $9.9 million in 2005 to $3.6 million in 2007.
But experts say other exceptions written into the 2007 reforms specifically, more relaxed rules that govern nonprofit groups, colleges and universities have in recent years contributed to the rising cost of privately funded trips. In addition, savvy lobbying groups have formed affiliate charitable arms that exist in large part to finance Congressional travel without drawing the attention of House Ethics Committee, as most Congressional travel originates in that chamber.
"The travel rule has largely been eviscerated by the House Ethics Committee, allowing any lobbying entity to finance trips through a 501(c)(3) [charitable nonprofit]," Holman said. "I've had two meetings with the House Ethics Committee to try to discourage them from allowing that to happen, but there doesn't seem to be any inclination to clamp down on the travel rule or revise it."
As Roll Call has reported in the past, tax records and other public documents show how lobbying entities can fund travel through closely linked charitable organizations without running afoul of the rules.
The American Israel Education Foundation, the top financier of Congressional travel last year when measured by number of trips and expense, shares an address, employees and board members with the pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. 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.
A trip taken by four Members of Congress to South Africa and Botswana in August the most expensive month of privately financed Congressional travel to date was paid for by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, which is closely linked to four lobbying organizations and a roster of corporate interests. Its "advisory council" consists of the conservation groups Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the World Wildlife Fund. Its "conservation council" includes corporate heavyweights such as Volkswagen, Walmart, Unilever, Exxon Mobil Corp. and the American Petroleum Institute.
"I think after this last year, especially with AIPAC financing trips and literally flying about 20 percent of Congress to Israel, most groups are going to realize that there really is no restriction on financing trips anymore," Holman said. "I am expecting soon to run into a lobbying firm that just sets up a 501(c)(3) and starts financing trips."