Flight Risks

When foreign governments host U.S. lawmakers.

Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 12, 2014, 1 a.m.

Three days after Christ­mas last year, 13 mem­bers of Con­gress boarded planes across the United States bound for Mo­rocco. Their all-ex­penses-paid trip las­ted a week, and in­cluded vis­its to the cit­ies of Mar­rakech, Ra­bat, and Cas­ab­lanca. But much of what the law­makers did while abroad—where they stayed, where they dined, what tour­ist sites they may have vis­ited, and even how much the jaunt cost—re­mains a secret. That’s be­cause the trip was un­der­writ­ten by the Mo­roc­can gov­ern­ment, mak­ing it ex­empt from the tightened travel re­forms en­acted sev­en years ago in the wake of the Jack Ab­ramoff in­flu­ence-ped­dling scan­dal.

Trips like the one to Mo­rocco have ex­ploded in pop­ular­ity in the cur­rent Con­gress. Ac­cord­ing to a Na­tion­al Journ­al re­view of pub­lic re­cords—in­clud­ing every law­maker’s fin­an­cial-dis­clos­ure form—mem­bers took at least 52 trips in 2013 that were fun­ded by for­eign gov­ern­ments. That fig­ure rep­res­ents a ten­fold jump from only a few years ago and twice as many as in 2011, the pre­vi­ous re­cent year with the most for­eign-gov­ern­ment-fun­ded trips.

In ad­di­tion, more than one in 10 of these trips in re­cent years were not re­por­ted—even though law­makers are re­quired to do so. In 2013, law­makers ori­gin­ally ad­mit­ted on their fin­an­cial-dis­clos­ure forms to go­ing on only 45 for­eign-fun­ded ex­cur­sions. But Na­tion­al Journ­al iden­ti­fied sev­en more such trips, through re­views of pho­tos, news stor­ies, lob­by­ing re­cords, and em­bassy an­nounce­ments.

All of this for­eign-fun­ded travel—both re­por­ted and un­re­por­ted—has its roots in the meas­ures that were put in place in 2007, fol­low­ing the Ab­ramoff scan­dal. The law cracked down on private non­profits, like the ones Ab­ramoff used to jet law­makers around the globe. It banned lob­by­ists from us­ing private groups to take law­makers on jour­neys abroad, for­bade any group that em­ployed lob­by­ists from foot­ing the bill for in­ter­na­tion­al trips, and de­man­ded that travel it­in­er­ar­ies and costs be made pub­lic.

None of those rules, however, ap­plied to trips sponsored by for­eign gov­ern­ments. And so these trips ex­ploited that loop­hole. From 2006 to 2009, for­eign-gov­ern­ment-fin­anced trips ac­coun­ted for less than 4 per­cent of law­makers’ jour­neys abroad; last year, they con­sti­tuted at least 18 per­cent. (In ad­di­tion to our own ana­lys­is, Na­tion­al Journ­al re­lied on travel data provided by Le­gis­torm, which tracks privately sponsored travel, and on an older Wash­ing­ton Post data­base of for­eign-fun­ded travel.) “When the in­cent­ives change, and you clamp down on privately fin­anced travel, hu­man nature is to find oth­er ways to do it,” says Meredith McGe­hee, who tracks con­gres­sion­al travel as policy dir­ect­or for the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter. “We have dark money in elec­tions, and these trips are be­com­ing the dark money of for­eign travel.”

The for­eign-paid trips op­er­ate un­der a half-cen­tury-old law called the Mu­tu­al Edu­ca­tion­al and Cul­tur­al Ex­change Act, known as ME­CEA. Once a coun­try gets State De­part­ment ap­prov­al to par­ti­cip­ate, the par­tic­u­lars of its trips face next to no over­sight. And after a trip is com­plete, it can be as long as al­most a year and a half be­fore law­makers are re­quired to make any pub­lic ac­know­ledg­ment of it at all. Even then, de­tails are sparse. Mem­bers must list only the dates of the trip and what coun­try paid their way.”They get away with someone else pay­ing for a lux­uri­ous va­ca­tion, and it goes ba­sic­ally un­re­por­ted un­til much later,” says Craig Hol­man, who fol­lows travel rules for Pub­lic Cit­izen.

Where do law­makers go on these trips? In 2013, one House mem­ber, Tom Petri, vis­ited with pen­guins on the Falk­land Is­lands. A hand­ful of mem­bers spent spring break in Brazil. Ten went to China, where a par­ti­cipant said activ­it­ies in­cluded trekking on the Great Wall. All told, more than 20 coun­tries, led by China, shuttled mem­bers of Con­gress abroad in the last three years. Some na­tions flew in likely al­lies: Rep. Tammy Duck­worth, who was born in Bangkok, got a free trip to Thai­l­and, while Rep. Ami Be­ra, the only In­di­an-Amer­ic­an in Con­gress, got a free trip to In­dia. The most-fre­quent free fly­er was Eni Fa­leo­mavae­ga, a non­vot­ing del­eg­ate who rep­res­ents Amer­ica Sam­oa and who sits on the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. He was treated to a dozen in­ter­na­tion­al ex­cur­sions in the past three years. Over­all, nearly three-quar­ters of the trips last year were taken by Demo­crats.

As McGe­hee sees it, “the real danger” is not only that law­makers are tak­ing jun­kets. It’s also that for­eign hosts are show­ing Amer­ic­an poli­cy­makers a highly biased view of their coun­tries. “If you’re a mem­ber of Con­gress, and you go and all you see is the gov­ern­ment’s point of view, you’re not ne­ces­sar­ily go­ing to go back with an ac­cur­ate as­sess­ment of what’s hap­pen­ing in that coun­try,” McGe­hee says.

In 2012, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment paid for Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner’s trip to the Falk­land Is­lands—which Ar­gen­tina has long sought to wrest from U.K. con­trol. The trip clearly had an im­pact. “Be­fore my vis­it, I thought the Falk­land Is­lands were a co­lo­ni­al back­wa­ter,” Sensen­bren­ner ex­plained in an op-ed in The Tele­graph soon after. Sensen­bren­ner wrote of wit­ness­ing a demo­cracy in ac­tion. “The Falk­land Is­lands has de­term­ined for it­self that it wishes to re­main as­so­ci­ated with Bri­tain,” he wrote. “It is not a co­lo­ni­al out­post held host­age by a for­eign mil­it­ary.” (A spokes­man said Sensen­bren­ner in gen­er­al sup­ports self-de­term­in­a­tion.)

But it isn’t just the po­ten­tial for in­flu­en­cing Amer­ic­an policy that is dis­con­cert­ing; so is the fail­ure of some law­makers to dis­close that they’ve been on these trips at all. Na­tion­al Journ­al iden­ti­fied sev­en trips taken by six law­makers in 2013 that were not ini­tially dis­closed on an­nu­al fin­an­cial fil­ings: the trav­el­ers in­cluded Reps. Sheila Jack­son Lee (trips to Tur­key and China), Robin Kelly (Mo­rocco), Adam Kin­zinger (Tur­key), Dev­in Nunes (Brazil), Charles Ran­gel (China), and Lee Terry (Tur­key).

After Na­tion­al Journ­al con­tac­ted them in re­cent weeks, Terry, Kelly, Kin­zinger, and Nunes either filed amend­ments to their dis­clos­ures or said they would soon do so. Ran­gel filed an amend­ment after an earli­er Na­tion­al Journ­al story this sum­mer. Jack­son Lee’s of­fice said it was re­view­ing the mat­ter. Our re­view also found un­dis­closed travel in past years, in­clud­ing a 2011 trip to Canada by Rep. Joe Wilson and a 2012 trip to Bahrain by Rep. Mar­cia Fudge. Wilson’s of­fice did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. A Fudge spokes­wo­man said the omis­sion was an over­sight, and the trip would now be re­por­ted.

Mean­while, the iden­tit­ies of some law­makers who went abroad are still cloaked in secrecy. Last Au­gust, for in­stance, a group vis­ited Scot­land, but who ex­actly was there re­mains a mys­tery. A news story from the Uni­versity of Ed­in­burgh said six Amer­ic­an law­makers vis­ited. Yet only two, Reps. Mike McIntyre and Gregg Harp­er, dis­closed the trip on their fin­an­cial forms. Both of their of­fices re­fused to say which col­leagues joined them, re­fer­ring ques­tions to the Scot­tish af­fairs of­fice of the Brit­ish Em­bassy, which paid for the cross-At­lantic trip. The of­fice said it would re­spond in about a month.

While the Ab­ramoff-era re­forms banned lob­by­ists from par­ti­cip­at­ing in private in­ter­na­tion­al trips, lob­by­ists are still some­times in­volved in trips fun­ded by for­eign gov­ern­ments. For in­stance, former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Dick Geph­ardt and former Speak­er Den­nis Hastert—both now lob­by­ists—at­ten­ded a 2013 trip for sev­en law­makers, which was fun­ded by Tur­key. This spring, re­cords show a lob­by­ist with Hastert’s firm, former Rep. Al Wynn, reached out to the of­fices of two dozen mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus to talk about a po­ten­tial free trip to Tur­key. Caucus spokes­wo­man Ay­ofemi Kirby said no such trip is in the works.

The CBC has par­ti­cip­ated in sev­er­al ma­jor for­eign-fun­ded trips re­cently: the Mo­rocco and China trips last year—which to­geth­er ac­coun­ted for more than 40 per­cent of all ME­CEA travel in 2013—as well as a vis­it to the United Ar­ab Emir­ates last month. In ex­plain­ing the trips, Kirby cited the chance to “build and strengthen bi­lat­er­al re­la­tions” and pro­mote the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity and loc­al busi­nesses abroad.

Hol­man says he now re­grets that re­formers didn’t tackle for­eign-fin­anced trips when re­writ­ing travel laws sev­en years ago. “We were all fo­cused on the im­me­di­ate scan­dal of the time—and that was the Jack Ab­ramoff privately sponsored trips,” he says. At the very least, McGe­hee ar­gues, dis­clos­ure of it­in­er­ar­ies is es­sen­tial go­ing for­ward. “If it was a le­git­im­ate trip,” she asks, “what the heck are they afraid of?”

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