Members of Congress and their staff are permitted to accept free trips paid for by private sources.
Until 2007, privately funded travel was generally permitted so long as it was deemed by a member of Congress to be "officially connected" with one's congressional duties and was not paid for by a registered lobbyist or a representative of a foreign country. The private sponsor was permitted to cover the costs of transportation, lodging, meals and other expenses directly related to the purpose of the trip. International trips could not exceed seven days. Domestic trips could be no longer than three days for those in the Senate, or four days for those working in the House. Staff members had to obtain approval from their supervising member of Congress before going on a free trip. Both members and staff were required to file a disclosure within 30 days of completing a privately-funded trip.
In 2007, both the House and the Senate modified their rules governing privately funded travel. Some key differences with the new rules:
- Private organizations that employ registered lobbyists may no longer sponsor trips exceeding two days; the organizations' lobbyists may not accompany the member or staffer and can have only minimal involvement in arranging the trip.
- All privately funded travel must be pre-approved by the House or Senate ethics committees. Ethics committee approval can be secured only after both the invited congressional employee and the private sponsor certify the trip's conformity with congressional rules and provide a satisfactory answer about its connection with the invitee's official duties of Congress. According to House rules, "Travel will not be approved if it does not include sufficient officially-connected activities, or if it includes excessive amounts of unscheduled time for opportunities for recreational activities during the official itinerary, even if such activities are engaged in at personal expense."
These changes aside, the rules remain largely intact.
House Rules: http://www.house.gov/ethics/Travel_Guidelines.pdf
One organization has summarized the changes as follows: http://www.acenet.edu/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Home&CONTENTID=21433&TEMPLATE=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm