Which Lawmakers Are the Most Well-Traveled?

Take a look at these congressional jet-setters and the organizations that show them the world.

Emma Roller Stephanie Stamm
May 27, 2014, 1 a.m.

One of the perks of be­ing a sen­at­or is that people ac­tu­ally care about your opin­ions — and will spend thou­sands of dol­lars on you to in­form them.

Every year, think tanks, ad­vocacy groups, and oth­er neb­u­lous in­sti­tu­tions shell out hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to fly mem­bers of Con­gress to events around the world. Law­makers are re­quired to dis­close this type of privately fun­ded travel.

To be clear, these aren’t tax­pay­er-fun­ded trips, nor are they trips to broker peace agree­ments with for­eign lead­ers. They are more of­ten op­por­tun­it­ies for private or­gan­iz­a­tions to edu­cate (and in some cases, curry fa­vor with) power­ful law­makers on their is­sue of choice.

The web­site Le­giS­torm has tracked private fund­ing for law­makers’ travel since 2000. The data in­clude travel money that or­gan­iz­a­tions have giv­en to both Sen­ate and House mem­bers. Over the last 14 years, the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion has spent more than $9.4 mil­lion on travel for mem­bers of Con­gress. The As­pen In­sti­tute’s Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gram — es­tab­lished in 1983 by former Sen. Dick Clark — isn’t far be­hind, spend­ing $9.2 mil­lion on trips since 2000. The ma­jor­ity of those funds went to Demo­crats.

This chart shows which or­gan­iz­a­tions have sup­plied the most travel funds to law­makers in the cur­rent ses­sion of Con­gress:

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The AIEF, which came in first, is the char­it­able arm of the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, or AIPAC — a pro-Is­rael lob­by­ing group.

“AIEF-sponsored trips help in­form mem­bers of Con­gress about the im­port­ance of the U.S.-Is­rael re­la­tion­ship through firsthand ex­per­i­ences in Is­rael, brief­ings by ex­perts on Middle East af­fairs, and meet­ings with Is­raeli polit­ic­al lead­ers,” a spokes­per­son for AIEF said in a state­ment to Na­tion­al Journ­al.

So far in the cur­rent ses­sion of Con­gress, Sen. Tom Har­kin, D-Iowa, has re­ceived the most travel funds from private groups, com­pared with his fel­low sen­at­ors. Through the As­pen In­sti­tute, Har­kin has traveled to Ethiopia, Ja­pan, and Colom­bia for policy con­fer­ences.

“Sen­at­or Har­kin has found for­eign policy trips con­duc­ted by the non­par­tis­an As­pen In­sti­tute to be highly edu­ca­tion­al and use­ful for his du­ties as a sen­at­or,” a Har­kin spokes­per­son told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “These study groups of­fer mem­bers of Con­gress sub­stant­ive dis­cus­sion on im­port­ant areas of the world.”

The As­pen In­sti­tute’s Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gram sends mem­bers of Con­gress to con­fer­ences around the world to dis­cuss policy — with a scen­ic back­drop — through grants from char­it­able found­a­tions. Since 2000, (when Le­giS­torm began track­ing this data) Sen. Tom Ud­all, D-New Mex­ico, has re­ceived more travel funds from private or­gan­iz­a­tions than oth­er cur­rently serving sen­at­ors. Over the past 14 years, Ud­all has traveled to Italy, Switzer­land, Tunisia, Brazil, Mex­ico, Tur­key, Spain, Fin­land, and China — all on the As­pen In­sti­tute’s dime. Trips taken by Ud­all alone, not in­clud­ing staff, totaled more than $160,000.

“As a mem­ber of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, Sen­at­or Ud­all takes ser­i­ously his re­spons­ib­il­ity to New Mex­ico and the na­tion to un­der­stand the com­plex glob­al is­sues fa­cing our world today,” a spokes­per­son for Ud­all told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Glob­al con­flicts still make the world a dan­ger­ous place, and Sen­at­or Ud­all is con­stantly work­ing to en­sure he main­tains a ser­i­ous grasp of the se­cur­ity is­sues around the world. As­pen In­sti­tute edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams don’t cost the tax­pay­ers a dime, and he has nev­er missed a vote to at­tend them.”

Sen. Ro­ger Wick­er, R-Miss., who served in the House be­fore join­ing the Sen­ate in 2007, came in second after Ud­all in travel funds re­ceived. Wick­er has re­ceived $143,000 in private travel funds since 2000.

“The de­vel­op­ment of U.S. for­eign policy does not oc­cur in a va­cu­um. It re­quires a com­pre­hens­ive un­der­stand­ing of glob­al is­sues,” a spokes­per­son for Wick­er told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “Vis­its with for­eign lead­ers, health ex­perts, and eco­nom­ists are crit­ic­al to shap­ing policies that be­ne­fit all Amer­ic­ans.”

This type of sub­sid­ized jet-set­ting is hardly rare be­ha­vi­or. Since the be­gin­ning of 2013 — when the cur­rent ses­sion of Con­gress began — the Amer­ic­an Is­rael Edu­ca­tion Found­a­tion has spent more than $2.2 mil­lion on travel for both Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an law­makers. The As­pen In­sti­tute comes in second, hav­ing spent more than $1.3 mil­lion on trips for mem­bers. And the Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute, a non­profit foun­ded in 1987, has spent $420,000 on trips for Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress, and none on Demo­crats.

This type of data is skewed to­ward vet­er­an law­makers, who have had more time in of­fice to see the world. It’s im­possible to say how much re­l­at­ive new­bies will travel over the course of their time in of­fice — oh, the places they’ll go! — but if their more seni­or coun­ter­parts give any in­dic­a­tion, or­gan­iz­a­tions will hap­pily pay for their plane tick­ets and ac­com­mod­a­tions for years to come.

Still, some vet­er­an law­makers have had con­sid­er­ably less of their travel fin­anced by out­side groups. Private or­gan­iz­a­tions have only spent $584 on private travel for Sen. Di­anne Fein­stein — who has served in the Sen­ate for 21 years — since 2000. And Sen. Richard Shelby, who joined the Sen­ate in 1987, has only taken one privately fun­ded trip over the same time peri­od — an event in Mont­gomery, Ala., in 2004. It cost $338.

As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Shane Gold­mach­er re­por­ted in Janu­ary, Is­rael is the most-vis­ited coun­try by mem­bers of Con­gress and staff on privately fun­ded trips. And while the trips’ pur­pose is busi­ness, there is plenty of time for play, too:

Back­ers of the trips say they are sav­ing U.S. tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars. And, of course, all the private trips are sup­posed to be strictly edu­ca­tion­al and fact-find­ing mis­sions. But many it­in­er­ar­ies in­clude ample time to re­lax, vis­it mu­seums, tour na­tion­al parks, and whiz through ma­jor tour­ist at­trac­tions. The law­makers are typ­ic­ally chauf­feured from site to site, with all meals paid for and even­ings spent at top-notch ho­tels.

Dan Glick­man, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the As­pen In­sti­tute Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gram, said their con­fer­ences don’t try to reach con­sensus on is­sues or lobby mem­bers of Con­gress, only to al­low “a civil, off-the-re­cord and im­par­tial format” for law­makers to “build trust and re­spect across the aisle in this era of hy­per­par­tis­an­ship.”

The U.S. As­so­ci­ation of Former Mem­bers of Con­gress — which came in fifth in travel funds al­lot­ted to law­makers this ses­sion — has spent $248,000 on travel since 2013, and $1.1 mil­lion since 2000. Peter M. Weich­lein, the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s CEO, said the trips are well worth the cost.

“We see great value in mem­bers of Con­gress trav­el­ing to­geth­er, be­cause it is one of the few op­por­tun­it­ies left where Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats can spend some time to­geth­er and get to know one an­oth­er on a more per­son­al level,” Weich­lein told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

So if you want to plan a trip to sunny São Paulo — and don’t mind some light wonkery mixed in with your sight­see­ing — a good first step might be run­ning for of­fice.

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