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Congress' Top Travelers Say Globetrotting on Private Dime Essential

McDermott says Congress needs to travel to do its job more effectively. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

As one of the top travelers in Congress, Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette likes to give this advice to incoming House freshmen: "Pick one or two countries and really get deeply involved in the politics and culture.”  

For DeGette, that nation is Japan. The lawmaker, who was born in Tachikawa, explained her “long cultural and personal connection” in a recent interview. “My district, in Denver, has a huge business and cultural connection to Japan,” she said, adding that the head of the local chamber of commerce is excited by the ties. In February, DeGette and her husband traveled to Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, for the week-long Congress-Diet Seminar, a $23,687 trip, sponsored by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress, in which she is co-chairman of the Congressional Study Group on Japan. Traveling with a small group of members and their spouses, DeGette met with journalists, government officials and Japanese lawmakers and toured a Buddhist temple, shrine and other cultural sites.  

Private groups sent members of Congress and their staffs on 1,942 trips last year, more than in any year since Congress tightened its rules in 2007 on outside groups paying for travel, part of the response to the Jack Abramoff scandal. The total bill for travel to domestic locales and distant corners of the globe — including Belgium, Colombia, Cuba, Israel, Italy and Turkey — topped $5.1 million in 2014, according to an analysis of records maintained by the website Legistorm.  

Travel disclosure forms show detailed itineraries of the all-expenses-paid voyages, and lawmakers such as DeGette are quick to point out sending members of Congress abroad isn't a vacation. "There are never any lobbyists on the trips where I go," she said.  

According to travel disclosures filed with the House Ethics Committee, DeGette's privately funded Japan trip was relevant both to her role as a chief deputy whip for Democrats and as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The 10-term Democrat believes she has established great working relationships with fellow members while traveling, and said she prefers non-profit funded trips to congressional delegation trips because they provide a much deeper analysis of the issues. And, "It saves the taxpayers money.”  

Ranked by cost, last year's top traveler was Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., who retired at the end of the 113th Congress after accepting trips worth $67,295 in 2014.  

In February 2014, five weeks after announcing his plans to end his congressional career, McIntyre took the most expensive trip on record since the year 2000. He traveled to the southern coast of Australia with his wife, Dee McIntyre, for an eight-day trip sponsored by the Australian defense industry association Defence Teaming Centre Inc. The nine-term Blue Dog moderate was invited as a member of the House Armed Services Committee “to speak on the US pivot to Asia-Pacific and opportunities arising for defence industry in South Australia,” according to forms filed with the House Ethics Committee.  

McIntyre’s itinerary included shipyard and submarine tours, meetings with industry executives and government officials, plus a South Australian wine industry brief. The price tag for the stay in Adelaide, including meals and a room at the city's five-star Hilton hotel, was $49,635.  

Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., ranked second, accepting $53,939 worth of travel. As a leader of the House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan commission that counsels budding democracies on building parliamentary infrastructure, Price's travels over the course of his 14 terms in Congress have taken him to Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.  

In November, he took a five-day trip to Tunisia, accompanied by a senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The National Democratic Institute covered economy airfare, meals and $100-per-night lodging at the Hotel El Mouradi so Price could serve as an election monitor in the first democratic presidential vote in that country’s history. He joined an international delegation, “which observed minimal irregularities in what was an historic election, the first to deliver on the promise of the Arab Spring,” Price said in a statement provided to CQ Roll Call.  

Rep. Ander Crenshaw's role as an appropriator on the State and Foreign Operations and Defense subcommittees took the Florida Republican and his wife, Kitty, to far-flung destinations in Asia and South America in 2014.  

As part of a congressional delegation, the couple took a $20,894 trip to rural Cambodia, sponsored by Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc., with help from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Crenshaw looked at U.S. Agency for International Development maternal and child health programs. Another trip, sponsored by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, took Crenshaw and his wife to remote regions of Colombia and Peru, “where we observed international conservation programs and saw their impact on regional security,” he said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.  

Many of 2014's top travelers praised the Aspen Institute, the think tank that sponsored $615,801 in trips in 2014, according to Legistorm, for its substantive and engaging format. DeGette described days spent with scholars in Turkey — morning roundtables, followed by one-on-one afternoon meetings and dinners in the evening with rotating rounds of conversation — learning about extremist groups and dictators in the Middle East.  

"Aspen is a well-respected organization because its leadership is committed to connecting engaged Members with nonpartisan experts for frank and constructive discussions of foreign policy," Price said in his statement. "The Aspen Institute is insistently independent, which I think Members find reassuring and refreshing.”  

Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., accepted seven free trips last year, visiting India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden, among others, for a sum of $45,607. A physician, McDermott tends to travel for health policy purposes. In an interview, the 14-term lawmaker told CQ Roll Call his travel always relates to what he is doing in Congress, where he sits on the Budget and Ways and Means committees.  

"I represent a district that’s very internationally related, because of Boeing," McDermott said. "Boeing sells airplanes to every one of those countries, so I always pay attention to what’s going on with ... sales and what’s going on in those countries.” He visited Turkey, for instance, to get a better picture of the Middle East.  

"I’m sure I’m among the most traveled in my delegation for quite some time, and I believe if we’re going to make decisions about the world, then we better go out and find out what’s going on in the world," he said. "Too many people want to sit in here on the floor and they know everything, but they’ve never been outside their neighborhood and you know some of them don’t have passports … to me that’s stupid. To me, we are the most important legislative body in the world, ... we have to be understanding of what’s going on in the world. And you can’t know that without going, and looking, and talking, and exposing yourself to what’s going on in those countries.”  

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