A Closer Look at Congressional Foreign Travel

On Monday, Paul Singer at USA Today reported new data on the burgeoning practice of congressional foreign travel. According to Singer, federal legislators spent more government funds venturing abroad in 2016 than any other year in the past decade. Roughly 40% of the trips cost over $10,000 each. The Senate Armed Services Committee spent more than any other, and the House Intelligence Committee experienced a big jump in expenses under the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who issued a directive for Committee members to “spend more time in the field.” These are important developments that suggest both the utility of what I’ve called “legislative diplomacy” and the risk of abuse as members of Congress engage in the practice with greater regularity. We also know, however, that the U.S. Government is not the only source of funding—members of Congress also rely on private sponsors. To name just one example, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) recently accepted sponsorship from a nonprofit organization in making a controversial trip to Syria, where she met with Bashar al-Assad.

Which raises the question: How much do we know about this separate domain of privately funded congressional foreign travel? More specifically, how common are non-governmental sponsorships? Has reliance on private sources become more or less common over time? Which members of Congress have participated? Where did they go? And who paid for it?

As it turns out, these questions are surprisingly easy to answer, at least with respect to the House of Representatives. House Rule 25 requires members and staff to file reports detailing any travel-related expenses reimbursed by a non-government source. Under Section 304 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, the Office of the Clerk must publish the past six years worth of these reports online, so I simply downloaded them and aggregated the data. Here’s what they show:

Figure 1: Total Volume of Travel – House (Including Staff)

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As Figure 1 indicates, it’s extremely common for House members and staff to travel abroad on private funding. Since 2011, there have been over 4,000 of these trips, ranging from almost 500 in 2012 to nearly 1,000 in 2015. Virtually every office has been involved, with an average of one to two trips per office per year. It appears that the practice is less common in election years, presumably because legislators are busy campaigning. It also appears that there was a slight trend toward more travel from 2011 to 2016. (The less-useful Senate Gift Rule Database suggests that private sponsorships are comparably voluminous in the Senate.)

Figure 2: Most Frequent Travelers – House (Including Staff)

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Figure 2 shows the total number of trips taken by each of the ten congressional offices involved in the largest volume of privately funded foreign travel. A couple of conditions stand out here.

First, while travel isn’t limited to one political party, a majority of the top ten (and top twenty) offices were those of Democrats. It’s unclear whether this represents a broader trend. It strikes me as potentially significant, however, that these offices led the way even during a period of consistent Republican majorities. Does this tell us something about minority parties (or Democrats)? It’s hard to say, but one possibility is that the minority, whether Republican or Democrat at any given time, relies upon private funding more frequently than the majority because of the Mutual Security Act of 1954, which conditions the availability of public funds on authorization from the Speaker of the House or the chairperson of a committee. On this hypothesis, private funding has been uniquely attractive to House Democrats in recent years because the alternative would force them to seek authorization from House Republicans, who have held exclusive power under the Act to permit the use of public funds.

Second, among the ten leading offices, privately funded travel doesn’t correlate with service on the Foreign Affairs Committee or Intelligence Committee. Among the most frequent flyers, Rep. Engel is the only one who’s currently a Foreign Affairs Committee member. Rep. Larsen serves on the Armed Services Committee, but none of the others has an obvious committee-based justification for frequent travel abroad. This raises questions about the utility of the practice, particularly when the fact of private sponsorship legally requires a non-official purpose. What, precisely, are members and staff getting out of all this? I’m open to the possibility that going abroad is worthwhile even for those who don’t serve on a committee with jurisdiction over foreign affairs, but it’s hard to say definitively on the current state of the evidence.

Figure 3: Most Frequent Destinations

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Figure 3 shows the total number of privately funded visits to each of the top ten destinations. With nearly 1,400 visits from 2011 to 2016, Israel easily led the way and accounted for nearly a third of all of the 4,400 trips that occurred within the reporting period. Turkey was also quite high with roughly 750 visits, but other countries trailed far behind. In all, House members and staff traveled to 113 different countries.

The leading destinations seem significant as plausible indicia of congressional priorities and expertise. I imagine that, all else equal, members of Congress are more likely to appreciate the complexities of U.S. foreign relations with the countries they’ve visited. I also suspect that legislators and staff are more likely to return to the United States with greater sympathy for the policies advanced by the governments of host countries. The implication is that many members of Congress are uniquely knowledgeable about and sympathetic toward Israel and Turkey, not necessarily because of constituent preferences or abstract ideas about the importance of U.S. relations with those countries, but at least partly because of the travel itself, which has placed members and staff in close contact with government officials, the public, and economic and political conditions in Israel and Turkey.

Viewed in this light, the top destinations are also significant for the locations not included. Looking through the data, it appears that there were few delegations to conflict zones and countries with which the United States has hostile relations. There wasn’t a single trip to Russia in six years. There were only eleven trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan. China was among the top ten, but accounted for only 2% of the total, far below the percentage that one might think appropriate, given the importance of Sino-U.S. relations. The plausible consequence, especially if publicly funded travel exhibits a similar pattern, is that legislators are less informed about many of the very countries that present the greatest challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

Whatever the merits of the leading destinations as such, their dominance appears to reflect a combination of influences. One is American public opinion; several of the top destinations—Canada, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, and Israel—also have the highest favorability ratings among the broader public. This is no surprise insofar as the likely effects of public approval are to reduce the political risk and enhance the benefits of traveling to a particular country. Few would’ve objected if Rep. Gabbard had recently traveled to Tokyo, for example, instead of Damascus. But public opinion still seems like an incomplete explanation. Turkey, China, Belgium, Guatemala, and Colombia were also top destinations, but have much lower favorability ratings. Conversely, the Philippines received only a single delegation, but has one of the highest ratings.

The other apparent influence is the identity of the sponsors. As indicated below in Figure 4, organizations sympathetic toward Israel and Turkey simply paid for a much larger volume of congressional foreign travel. The clear leader in this regard is the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), which funded nearly 1,300 trips—over three times as many as the next sponsor, the Aspen Congressional Institute, which funded roughly 400. Either members of Congress aren’t as interested in accepting other sponsorships, or those sponsorships are harder to find or secure.

Figure 4: Most Frequent Sponsors

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Sponsor identities seem significant in the sense that they suggest the purposes of the underlying travel. AIEF, a charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, funds delegations to promote support for Israel within Congress, while the Turkish Coalition of America and the Turkic American Federation of the Midwest do likewise with respect to Turkey. The Aspen Congressional Institute offers nonpartisan programs of education on matters of international concern. The Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), an international humanitarian organization, appears to use the trips to promote foreign aid. Presumably, these organizations sponsor delegations because they perceive that doing so is an effective way to influence the views and voting behavior of members of Congress. In total, nearly 200 organizations funded at least one trip, ranging from the Hibernian Celtic Athletic Fund to the European Women’s Lobby and the Minnesota World’s Fair Bid Committee.

Overall, this evidence reinforces the need for critical inquiry with respect to the contemporary practice of legislative diplomacy. With an apparent boom in both publicly and privately funded travel, it’s worth considering whether the current patterns are defensible: Are the top destinations reflective of U.S. national interests, or merely the result of uncoordinated, ad hoc, individual decisions that defy a systemic logic? Given that privately funded delegations are necessarily non-official, what is it that warrants member participation in some cases but not others? Are legislators accepting private sponsorships based on comparative analyses of which destinations might be most productive, or are they accepting any offer that comes in the door? And are members of Congress maintaining a principled difference between the activities they pursue at public and private expense? The legitimacy of foreign travel depends on the answers to these questions.

I’ll close by suggesting that it’s easy to see the law’s influence in current practice. As I explained in an earlier post, federal law regulates congressional foreign travel in different ways, depending on the traveler’s purpose in each instance. To the extent that the purpose is official business, funding must come from the U.S. Government, and the Mutual Security Act of 1954 requires prior authorization from congressional leadership and ex post reporting of expenses in the Congressional Record. To the extent that the purpose is not official but rather “officially connected,” most private funding is permissible, and approval from congressional leadership is unnecessary, but the member must obtain advance authorization from the House Ethics Committee and then disclose expenses shortly after returning to the United States. In other words, one of the principal differences between publicly and privately funded travel concerns the locus and nature of the power to authorize the activity: Whereas the Mutual Security Act vests in the Speaker and committee chairpersons broad discretion to authorize or deny public funding for seemingly any reason, the House Rules vest in the Ethics Committee a more limited power to authorize or decline authorization for private funding solely in light of conformity with the Rules themselves.

The effect is that privately funded travel is probably harder to control; even where these trips might be unproductive or disserve U.S. interests, there is no effective, statutory basis for intervention by congressional leadership, and the Rules impose little impediment as long as members and staff comply with transparency requirements and avoid registered lobbyists and foreign agents. In this way, the law has facilitated the growth of privately funded delegations.

In like fashion, the law has diminished the need for public funding. The determination of whether a trip has an official purpose for which public funds are necessary, or an officially connected purpose for which private funding is permissible, must be made in a “reasonable manner” by the participating member. But the practical distinction between an official purpose and an officially connected purpose is paper-thin, and members have often engaged in the same types of activity, such as fact-finding and meeting with leaders of foreign governments, regardless of funding source and without accusations of unethical conduct. In these circumstances, it appears quite easy for members and staff to switch off or on the requirements of the Mutual Security Act simply by shifting the characterization of purpose. It also appears unlikely that any but the most unfounded characterizations will fail the standard of reasonableness, and unnecessary to seek public funds and authorization in many cases even when pursuing purposes that look quite official.

The ultimate takeaway is that, while illuminating, the numbers reported in USA Today radically understate the overall volume and significance of congressional foreign travel on matters of national concern. Publicly funded travel is common, but there’s a comparably robust practice that relies on non-government sources. This practice is in some ways functionally identical to that of traveling on public support and raises a variety of policy questions that warrant further discussion.

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