- Private groups have spent more than $280,790 on trips for members of Congress in 2021.
- Some lawmakers bring their spouses. One brought his then-fiancée.
- The trips had slowed down during the pandemic, and spending is lower than pre-COVID times.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
In late March, five US House members left the country for an all-expenses-paid trip to Qatar.
The lawmakers — four Democrats and one Republican — flew business class. They stayed at the luxurious waterfront Four Seasons in Doha, the capital city. They visited museums and marketplaces. One lawmaker brought his fiancée along. Two others brought their wives.
The price tag: $84,621.59, paid for by the US-Qatar Business Council.
The goal of the trip was to discuss business opportunities between the US and Qatar, including security preparations for the FIFA World Cup slated for Qatar next year, according to public disclosures filed with the House clerk.
Those kinds of trips, though not illegal, happen in a gray ethical area that offers powerful interests a chance to schmooze with and influence lawmakers. It’s another perk of being a powerful member of Congress in high demand whom all matter of groups are eager to get access to.
The trip — from March 29 to April 3, when Qatar was facing a surge in coronavirus cases and vaccines weren’t yet widely available in the US — remained low profile, although the US-Qatar Business Council tweeted about it.
The photo accompanying the tweet showed masked Democratic California Reps. Eric Swalwell, Luis Correa, and Sara Jacobs, as well as Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat of Arizona and Rep. Lisa McClain, a Republican of Michigan. Gallego’s fiancée and Correa and Swalwell’s wives, both of whom tagged along, weren’t in the photo.
—US-Qatar Business Council (@USQatar) April 1, 2021
“We invited members who represented regions relevant to the partnerships and investment opportunities that were covered on the trip,” Aaron Teitelbaum, a spokesman for the US-Qatar Business Council, told Insider, saying the group considered districts that had potential for job creation, increased investment, and expansion of exports, including US security equipment.
As of early July, the US-Qatar Business Council was just one of 11 private organizations that had funded trips for members of Congress or their staff in 2021, according to the nonpartisan LegiStorm website that tracks such travel. Most of these trips were within the US.
At least 188 members of Congress or their staff have traveled on private groups’ dime in 2021. Sixty-three of the travelers were Republicans, but the Qatar trip accounts for a large portion of the $280,790.20 spent so far.
Proponents of privately funded travel say it gives lawmakers and their staff crucial opportunities to gather information for policymaking, all without spending taxpayer dollars.
“Qatar is a major player in the Middle East. They have immense economic and strategic power,” said Correa, the only lawmaker from the Qatar trip to respond to questions for this story. “They also house one of the US’s largest military bases, which is critical to regional security. As Qatar continues to expand its regional diplomatic power and natural-gas production, it is in the United States’ interest that we deepen our relationship.”
Correa said he brought his wife on the trip because he spends a lot of time away from home as a congressman and wanted to use the travel as an opportunity “to spend some time together while working on behalf of the American people.” Both were vaccinated.
The US-Qatar Business Council initially planned to host lawmakers at the Mandarin Oriental for $350 a night but switched to the Four Seasons for its $260-per-night rate.
This kind of free travel drew to a halt in 2020 because of the pandemic, and it still isn’t what it used to be. According to LegiStorm, private groups had paid $2.78 million for congressional travel by this time in 2019.
But now that it’s creeping back again, it’ll open up lawmakers to a fresh round of scrutiny and questions about money, power, and influence.
Open-government advocates say lawmakers shouldn’t have to pay for all work travel themselves but that current rules have too many loopholes, particularly when it comes to foreign travel.
“Some privately sponsored travel is useful,” Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist for the watchdog group Public Citizen, told Insider. “You want members of Congress to be able to go to a conference of a labor union or a corporation to give speeches. You want them interacting with their constituents.”
But, he added, “It should be subject to strict restrictions where it facilitates the interaction and does not turn into a vacation.”
Coral Gables, border visit, environmental trips
A religious group called the Fellowship Foundation spent $6,866.14 in May to send Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican of Alabama, and Rep. John Moolenaar, a Republican of Michigan to Bosnia and Herzegovina for meetings about “faith, trade, and foreign relations.”
Right before Valentine’s Day, the Conservative Partnership Institute paid $41,172.45 to send 26 House Republicans to Miami for a retreat at the dazzling Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel so they could “attend sessions about legislation and messaging opportunities this Congress.” Disclosure documents show venue options for the retreat were limited because of COVID-19 capacity restrictions.
Some members brought their spouses or extended the trip on their own dime. Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Morgan Griffith of Virginia, Jim Jordan of Ohio, Chip Roy of Texas, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia were among the Republicans in attendance.
The event had all-star GOP speakers lined up, including Russ Vought, who was director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President Donald Trump; Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff; and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.
Two potential 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls from Florida — Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis — were invited but unable to attend, Wesley Denton, the organization’s chief operating officer, told Insider.
At another event in Maryland in June, the conservative Congressional Institute hosted its annual conference for chiefs of staff at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay. At least 132 people attended, at a price tag of $121,279.34.
The Congressional Institute was created to organize these kinds of events, which provide instructions on everything from management to policy. A copy of the conference agenda shows speakers from conservative think tanks, news outlets, and aides who formerly worked in offices of GOP leaders.
“There is no degree in congressional office management, so chiefs of staff learn on the job and by talking with their colleagues,” Congressional Institute President Mark Strand told Insider. “There are a number of chiefs who’ve never met each other because of the pandemic, so providing this opportunity to gather, meet their colleagues, and discuss important issues is invaluable.”
Another GOP trip, costing $11,521.68 and organized by the Republican Main Street Partnership, took eight House members and their staffs to El Paso, Texas, to meet with local farmers and ranchers about the challenges posed by drug trafficking at the border.
Sarah Chamberlain, president of the group, said no donors attended and the trip was “extremely educational.”
“It’s one thing to read about it,” she said. “It’s another thing to go down there firsthand.”
They also went to see Trump’s unfinished border wall, which, Chamberlain lamented, was “sitting back there just rotting.”
Back in the Sunshine State in April, the South Florida Agricultural Foundation organized a trip costing $6,565.66 with seven House Republicans to learn about water issues.
And the International Conservation Caucus Foundation paid $4,079.42 to host Rep. Dave Joyce, a Republican of Ohio, and Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat of Minnesota, at Isle of Palms in South Carolina to attend sessions and go on a nature tour about resource management.
Both co-chair the International Conservation Caucus, and Joyce brought his daughter on the trip.
Time to tighten the rules, ethics experts say
The privately funded trips in question are different from congressional delegations, commonly known as “CoDels,” that are paid for by Congress.
Under free-travel rules, lawmakers and staff can’t fly private on another person’s dime, nor can they receive entertainment, such as golf trips. A free trip is supposed to be directly related to their jobs, whether to learn something, attend a meeting, or deliver a speech. Family members are permitted.
Lawmakers must get approval from their respective ethics committees in advance and file details about who went with them on the trip. The documents are posted publicly.
Still, multiple loopholes exist that ethics experts say should be tightened. For instance, lobbyists can’t go on these trips or pay for them, but their corporate clients can. Lobbyists can also donate massive amounts of money to nonprofit groups and think tanks that are allowed to pay for travel.
Open-government advocates say the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act has helped provide more transparency about what kinds of travel members of Congress and their staffs are taking but that special interests have found ways to exploit loopholes.
“It was a huge success at first,” said Public Citizen’s Holman, who helped craft the law. “It sort of has been whittled away through the years because of exemptions by congressional ethics committees.”
Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, the government-affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said the regulations should not only be tightened but also codified into law. Right now they exist only within House and Senate rules and can be changed at any time.
“It brings up the question of: What are we electing these people to do? It is probably not in the mind of the average person who casts a ballot that their representative will spend their time in Miami or LA or New York, schmoozing with national activist and donor types,” Hedtler-Gaudette said, adding that members should be in their districts or in Washington working on issues specific to the people they represent.
“That’s what their constituents deserve and expect,” he said.
This story has been updated with the latest travel disclosures filed July 9.