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Rep. Jim McDermott and his senior legislative aide earlier this month traveled to Indonesia on what appears to be the most expensive privately financed trip based on per person costs since Congress amended its travel rules in 2007.
The development company Chemonics International, which contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development, spent almost $45,000 to send the Washington Democrat and Jessica Lee to Bali and Jakarta to attend a democracy forum and meet with government officials. McDermott’s travel expenses totaled about $21,000 and Lee’s were almost $24,000.
According to records maintained by the website LegiStorm, a private entity has not spent that much per person since Congress amended its rules related to privately sponsored travel five years ago in an effort to curb the influence of lobbyists on lawmaking. Many types of costly trips that had previously drawn criticism were eliminated. Privately financed travel is distinct from official congressional delegations, or CODELs, which are paid for by the federal government.
Neither Chemonics nor USAID lobbies Congress.
For McDermott’s office, the purpose of the trip to Indonesia was twofold.
The 12-term lawmaker from Seattle co-chairs the Congressional Indonesia Caucus with Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind. The caucus has in the past hosted several briefings on Indonesia’s pro- democracy movement and its role in Southeast Asia. Because of McDermott’s caucus role and his position as ranking member on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited him to attend the Bali Democracy Forum on Nov. 8 and 9.
The visit coincided with Indonesia implementing restrictions on imported fruit. Indonesia is the fifth-largest importer of Washington state apples, which generated $51 million in sales last year. New licensing and inspection standards could be economically devastating for Washington apple, cherry and pear interests, according to a McDermott spokesman.
“Congressman McDermott has heard from the businesses in the district and throughout Washington state about the trade disruption caused by the regulations that will affect all imported horticulture goods,” spokesman Kinsey Kiriakos wrote in an email.
“The Congressman has sent several letters to the Indonesian government about the new regulations, but has always felt that addressing issues of such importance is more effective when done in person,” he added.
Chemonics paid for McDermott and Lee to visit Indonesia because it administers a program there that supports public policy research and effective-governance efforts.
McDermott and Lee spent the first two days in Bali at the democracy forum before attending breakfast briefings, site visits and other meetings to discuss issues including female representation in politics and regional animal diseases. The final two days, in Jakarta, included meetings with Indonesia’s minister for the economy and other economic, agriculture and trade officials.
Chemonics paid about $12,400 for Lee’s airfare, $1,250 for her lodging and $1,000 for her meals. McDermott’s airfare from Seattle was about $9,500, and receipts for his lodging and meals came to about $980 and $750, respectively. The total cost of each trip also included more than $9,000 for airport departure taxes, hotel Internet access, printing charges, interpreters, meeting rooms and other costs, according to filings maintained by the Clerk of the House.
Police escorts for Mercedes Benz motorcades, per diems for Indonesian meeting participants and business class airfare also added to the total tab.
Chemonics and USAID also paid about $10,000 for Lee to attend a democracy-training program in Indonesia in June.
As CQ Roll Call has reported in the past, Congress amended its rules for privately sponsored travel in 2007 as part of a larger effort to curb outside influence. Reports that super lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others spent lavishly on trips that included golf junkets in St. Andrews, Scotland, prompted the inclusion of travel restrictions in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.
After trips financed by entities that employ lobbyists were, in most cases, capped at one day, the year-end tally for privately funded congressional travel dropped precipitously, from $9.9 million in 2005 to $3.6 million in 2007. But in recent years that figure has been on the rise.
Last year, private groups spent about $6 million on congressional travel. Though only $3.6 million has been spent so far this year, it exceeds the amount spent in the 2010 election year. Private travel outlays are typically lower in election years, according to LegiStorm figures.
Some of the most expensive per-person trip costs on record include the $28,000 that the American Enterprise Institute and the Vail Valley Foundation paid to send former Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., on a two-night trip to Beaver Creek, Colo., in 2005, and a trip that J. Scott Bensing, a staffer of former Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., took to Australia that cost General Atomics Aeronautical Systems almost $27,000 during the same year.