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?”