Flight Risks

When foreign governments host U.S. lawmakers.

Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
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?”

What We're Following See More »
Cornyn Says Health Vote Needed This Week
26 minutes ago
State Dept. Anti-Semitism Office Will be Unstaffed
1 hours ago

"Its remaining two staffers, each working half-time or less, would be reassigned as of that date. The Trump administration, which has yet to name an envoy to head the office, would not comment on the staffing change. At full staffing, the office employs a full-time envoy and the equivalent of three full-time staffers."

SCOTUS Will Hear Travel Ban
2 hours ago
"The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the government’s appeal of lower court rulings blocking the immigration order from taking effect nationwide. The court also granted the government's request to reinstate part of Trump's travel ban, which would affect people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. As a result of the decision, people who do not have a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States would be barred from entry."
SOCTUS Accepts Same-Sex Wedding Cake Case
3 hours ago

"The Supreme Court decided Monday to hear a case involving a Colorado baker's refusal to design and make a cake for a same-sex marriage. The baker, Jake Phillips, declined to make the custom cake and said it conflicted with his religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission decided that Phillips' actions amounted to sexual orientation discrimination under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act." Separately, the Court will not hear Peruta v. California, on "whether the Second Amendment gives people the right to carry handguns outside the home for self-defense, including concealed carry when open carry is forbidden by state law."

Kislyak Being Recalled to Russia
3 hours ago

"Ending one the most turbulent tenures of a Washington-based ambassador in recent memory, the Kremlin has decided to recall Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, three individuals familiar with the decision told BuzzFeed News. The decision to bring Kislyak back to Russia rather than appoint him to a senior position at the United Nations in New York, as several outlets previously reported, comes amid investigations by the FBI and Congress into the 66-year-old diplomat’s contacts with President Donald Trump’s top aides during the 2016 presidential campaign."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.