The influential Washington publication, National Journal, published this week a lengthy examination of two exceptions to the congressional travel rules. The exceptions have permitted Members of Congress to participate in extensive overseas travel, paid by outside interests and often organized by registered lobbyists, in spite of earlier reform efforts designed to restrict privately organized and funded travel.
This is an important story that could prompt further examinations of privately funded travel or spur efforts to implement new changes in the travel rules, such as closing the exceptions that permit travel to be funded by foreign governments and certain nonprofit organizations. Many foreign governments and corporations active in Washington have used these exemptions to support lawful congressional travel. These trips have continued despite reforms instituted in 2007, under the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which generally prohibit Members and staff from accepting travel from lobbyists or organizations that hire lobbyists.
The National Journal first examined international travel organized and financed by foreign governments under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. That law, passed in 1961, permits foreign governments to fund cultural exchange programs that are approved by the State Department. The National Journal examined trips funded by Turkey and Taiwan, but the story also noted that some 60 countries have programs approved under the statute. Because this travel is not governed by the congressional travel rules, lobbyists can organize and participate in the travel.
Second, the National Journal examined travel funded by nonprofit organizations, including instances in which the nonprofit’s funding comes from organizations that would not be able to support congressional travel expenses directly. Under current law, nonprofit organizations that do not retain a lobbyist generally can support domestic and foreign congressional travel when the organization has an interest in the purpose of the trip or location being visited. The National Journal suggests that some nonprofits may operate as extensions of their funders, for example by sharing office space and personnel.