The 119 freshmen lawmakers who arrived in January 2011 vowing to change Washington have quickly embraced one of the town's elite perks: free travel paid by outside groups. And that is leading to questions about whether they have been co-opted by the very special interests they disavowed when they ran for office.
In the summer of 2009 Renee Ellmers, a nurse with no political experience, sat frustrated at a town hall meeting in North Carolina listening to her congressman defend President Barack Obama’s health care plan.
That frustration led her to join her local Tea Party group and eventually fueled her successful run for Congress in North Carolina’s 2nd district.
Two Augusts later, Ellmers, now a Republican congresswoman, sat next to her husband in business class seats on their way to a five-star, all-expenses-paid tour of Israel.
It’s good to be a member of Congress, where the newest arrivals have quickly embraced one of the elite perks of Washington: free travel at the behest of special interests.
In all, 73 of the 119 new House members and senators who arrived in Washington in January 2011 vowing to change business as usual have accepted free trips from special interests and outside groups during their first two years in office. The total tab for their 139 free trips so far is $1.13 million, according to a Washington Guardian analysis assisted by the nonpartisan Political Moneyline Web site, which studies the intersection of money and politics.
The free jaunts range from Rep. Tom Marino’s $7,350 trip to Brussels, Belgium, with his daughter last month to Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s $1,000 summer weekend this July with his wife at a Las Vegas casino.
"When new Members feel comfortable enough in Congress to accept free trips for themselves and their spouses you know they've been overtaken by the Washington culture of entitlement," said Kent Cooper, the former head of public disclosure at the Federal Election Commission who now runs the Political Moneyline service.
The lawmakers insist their trips were related to their official business and did not involve lobbyists, a key to winning an exemption to the congressional gift ban. But many of those who footed the bill are tied to interests seeking to influence Congress, such as think tanks, organizations supporting foreign aid to developing countries and groups organized by former lawmakers aiming to burnish the image of a foreign country.
Ellmers’ travel, for instance, was sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. Twenty-four other freshmen, including four fellow members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, joined Ellmers on the AIEF trip, making it one of the most popular in Congress in 2011.
The lawmakers' filings for the trip claim its purpose was to “maintain and further the relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”
Free trips are considered a gift in Congress, and the House and Senate ethics rulebook requires all members of Congress to file disclosure forms detailing travel expenses reimbursed by a non-governmental organization or non-profit. The reports allow the public to see who is trying to sow good will with Congress by picking up travel tabs.
Even groups that cheered the arrival of the Tea Party freshmen in hopes of reining in runaway government spending see a double-edged sword in the free trips: they don't cost taxpayers in the short term for travel but could forge friendships and goodwill that protect pet spending projects from the budget knife in the future.
"At least they are not taxpayer funded," Pete Sepp, head of the National Taxpayers Union, told the Washington Guardian's partner on the project, Sinclair Broadcast.
"It's hard to know exactly what kind of relationships get forged on these trips that might lead to some kind of budgetary implications in the future."
For sure, lawmakers will remember who sent them on a very nice trip, and that’s the point, said Viveca Novak, a politics and influence expert at the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which studies the intersection of money and politics.
“These kinds of perks given to members of Congress can be legitimate ways to educate members of Congress about issues the groups care about, but they are still perks and they are still ways to get close to the members of Congress, to gain access, to gain favor,” Novak said.
The purpose of each trip is to educate members about the region, and there is no expense spared to make sure the members have a comfortable journey. Lawmakers and their family members are typically flown business class when headed overseas and are treated to luxury accommodations and meals in five-star hotels. Senior staff are often invited as well, though they are given economy seats.
For example, the American Israel Education Foundation spent more than $10,000 on business class tickets to fly Ellmers and her husband from Raleigh-Durham to Tel Aviv and back and $1,300 for 6 nights stay at five-star hotels.
In between meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and presentations on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ellmers and her husband toured Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea and expensed approximately $150 a day for meals, according to Ellmers’ travel report.
Ellmers' office did not respond to repeated requests for comment about her travel.
There is no limit on the number of trips members can take in a given year or session. In fact, two months later, Ellmers brought her husband and chief of staff along on a trip to Turkey that was jointly sponsored by The Former Members of Congress Congressional Study Group on Turkey and the Turkey Coalition of America.
The educational trips span the world and cover a variety of topics.
Rep. Scott Austin, a Republican representing Georgia’s 8th district, racked up the biggest travel bill for outside groups of all the freshmen. His trips to Israel, sponsored by AIEF, and Taiwan, sponsored by Fu Jen Catholic University, cost the groups more than $44,000 combined.
Marino, a Republican representing Pennsylvania’s 10th district, was another frequent traveler. He went to Brussels in 2012, Israel in 2011 as well as Liberia and Ghana in January 2012. The latter trip was paid by Care Inc., a charitable organization focused on fighting global poverty. The tour was focused on showcasing “the positive reach and scope of U.S. investments overseas - particularly as they improve family health outcomes and save lives for women and girls in the developing world,” the trip report says.
Although Marino traveled solo to Israel, he opted to bring his daughter along to Africa, a trip that cost Care nearly $25,000 for both of them.
Additionally, in May of this year, Marino’s chief of staff toured Berlin and Munich on a trip sponsored by the United States Association of Former Members of Congress Congressional Study Group on Germany. Marino’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Sponsored trips are not always international. Members are also treated to all-expense paid travel within the United Sates to attend conferences or group events. Although the House and Senate travel state the trips must be in line with the public duties of office holders, subsidized trips often include the members delivering speeches to special interest groups.
The New American Leaders Project sponsored Hawaii Rep. Colleen Hanabusa’s travel to New York from Washington, D.C. to be the keynote speaker at their conference in May 2011.
Likewise, Paul went this summer to Freedom Fest, a yearly meeting of conservatives and libertarians in Las Vegas, which the event’s website bills as “the world’s most libertarian city.” This year the group paid more than $1,000 for Paul and his wife, Kelley, to attend the event, according to his official travel report. Paul gave both a speech and the closing remarks at the event. But he also cashed-in by holding a political fundraiser and book signing event for himself.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, sponsors members travel and expenses to attend the Conservative Members Retreat each January. In 2011, several Republican members of Congress attended the conference at the Four Seasons Hotel in Simi Valley, Calif., a fine place to take a break from winter’s chill.
Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., attended the conferences each of the last two years. On his 2011 travel disclosure form he explained that the trip was related to his individual office or representation duties because it was “recommended for conservative congressmen.”
For some members whose districts are far from Washington, the free travel can help subsidize a trip home. For the Heritage Foundation trip, Duncan flew out from Washington, but returned back home to Greenville, S.C., all without costing his campaign committee or office budget a penny.
He planned a similar journey in March 2011, when the Club for Growth flew him and his wife from Washington, D.C. to Palm Beach for their annual winter conference and then back to South Carolina. While this travel habit does save money for the campaign and office, it sets up a dependence on special interest groups in order for members to return to the district.
Click here to see the complete list of freshmen members of Congress who took trips and the amount it cost the funding group.
The House Ethics Committee is the main body in Congress for regulating the ethical behavior of lawmakers and approving gifts and free travel for lawmakers.
The Federal Election Commission is the federal agency charged with regulating election law and political fund-raising.