Paramilitary soldiers walk near Tiananmen gate in Beijing on November… (Ed Jones/Getty Images )
About a dozen congressional staffers flew business class on a trip to China last summer and stayed at luxury hotels while touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and receiving a “briefing on ancient artifacts and dynasties” at the Shanghai Museum.
The all-expenses-paid visit came courtesy of China. The Chinese government hosted a day of meetings with officials in Beijing followed by eight days packed with outings to destinations often frequented by tourists along with a stop at a missile frigate and two others related to national security — the official theme of the trip.
More and more foreign governments are sponsoring such excursions for lawmakers and their staffs, though an overhaul of ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of free trips. This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor.
The overseas travel is covered by an exemption Congress granted itself for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.
A Washington Post examination of congressional disclosures revealed the extent of this congressional travel for the first time, finding that Hill staffers had reported taking 803 such trips in the six years ending in 2011. Lawmakers themselves are increasingly participating, disclosing 21 trips in 2011, more than double the figure in prior years.
The number of congressional trips could be far higher, because only lawmakers and senior congressional staff members are required to disclose the travel. A former senior aide on a congressional committee said that junior staffers were usually sent on the trips because they rarely had the chance to take official trips paid for by the U.S. government.
Some Hill employees have gone on repeated trips to the same country, and others chain them together, traveling directly from one expenses-paid visit to another.
China is by far the biggest sponsor of these trips, with senior staffers reporting more than 200 trips there over the six-year period, according to The Post’s review of 130,000 pages of disclosures collected by the Web site LegiStorm. Taiwan accounts for an additional 100 trips.
But other regions of the world are also well represented.
On a trip to Jordan, for instance, congressional staffers stayed at the Four Seasons in Amman, where they received an audience with the king. The group also visited the Dead Sea and the famed mosaics in Madaba and spent two days at the ancient cities of Petra and Jerash, according to an itinerary for the trip.
In Switzerland, staffers took a helicopter ride through the Alps to Monte Bre, hiking up the mountain for coffee at a summit cafe overlooking a lake, according to another itinerary.
Organizers of the trips say they’re an important way for U.S. government staff members to learn about the world with no cost to taxpayers. The trips are supposed to include visits to historical and cultural sites, including those frequented by tourists, to foster international understanding.
“We view these trips as being very meaningful and very productive,” said Richard Quick, who organizes the China-funded trips through the U.S.-Asia Foundation. “We try and learn more about the history and culture of the country. . . . It’s a much broader view.”
Detractors say the trips often amount to propaganda junkets that create a blatant conflict of interest for the Hill staff members who take them.
“Lots of things are allowed on these foreign trips that are not allowed on any other kind of trip,” said Jock Friedly, the founder of LegiStorm, a congressional-transparency Web site. “It’s clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this.”
Follow the rules
The trips highlight inconsistencies in tough ethics rules Congress set for itself. Although registered foreign lobbyists can’t buy a $2 cup of coffee for a congressional staffer in Washington, they are allowed to invite, plan and accompany a staffer on a trip costing $10,000 or more. Nor is there any requirement about how much time is spent on work related to Congress.
Congress overhauled the rules for travel after the 2005 scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had paid for lavish trips for several lawmakers and their families before his 2006 guilty plea on fraud and bribery charges. After Democrats won control of Congress in midterm elections, they passed legislation governing the rules for travel funded by organizations that hire lobbyists, requiring pre-approval of trip itineraries and limiting travel to a single day.