WASHINGTON – 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, 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, although 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, although 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 staff had reported taking 803 of these trips in the six years ending in 2011. Lawmakers are increasingly participating, disclosing 21 trips in 2011, more than double the figure in previous years.
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 Posts review of 130,000 pages of disclosures collected by the Web site LegiStorm.com. Taiwan accounts for an additional 100 trips.
Organizers of the trips say theyre an important way for U.S. government staff 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. Its 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. Its clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this.
Lobbyists for foreign countries use the trips to build relationships with staffers and often contact them about legislative business after the trips end, public records show. More than 200 times from 2008 to 2010, staffers who went on the foreign trips were contacted by lobbyists for the host country to talk about legislation or issues concerning trade and foreign relations, according to a Post analysis of foreign lobbying data from the Sunlight Foundation.