Are privately sponsored trips simply paid vacations?
Answer: Congressional rules allow private organizations to sponsor travel only when the travel is for official business purposes. While many trips involve some fun activities, that is not supposed to be the primary purpose for the trip.
Why do I see a Democratic staffer having a trip approved by a Republican?
Answer: There are many cases where staffer travel is approved by a member of the opposing political party. In most instances, the staffer works for a committee that is chaired by the travel approver – while the staffer may work for committee members of their own political affiliation, it is often regarded as a common courtesy for the chairman to approve their travel.
Since Republicans chaired committees for the vast majority of the timespan covered by the LegiStorm travel database (Jan. 1, 2000 – present), you will more frequently find cases where Democrat staffers have travel approved by Republican members of Congress.
However, some staffers have simply changed party affiliation. These staffers may have a travel record which includes trips approved by members of both parties.
What is a CODEL?
Answer: It’s short for “Congressional Delegation,” and it commonly refers to trips taken by members of Congress that are paid for by the federal government. The LegiStorm Travel Database is currently comprised of financial disclosures that are required for privately funded travel.
I read about the Speaker of the House visiting another country. Why don't I see this trip in your database? What other kinds of travel can members of Congress and their staff go on?
The LegiStorm Travel Database is currently composed of financial disclosures that are required for privately funded travel.
There are several other ways for members of Congress and staff to travel which are not subject to the same disclosure requirements. They are:
Taxpayer-funded travel: Travel paid for by the taxpayer at the local, state or federal level does not require a disclosure. The most frequent use of taxpayer-funded travel likely involves travel paid for with the taxpayer-funded allowance provided to members for work-related expenditures and Congressional Delegation trips (CODELs) which are organized through the Pentagon and State Department.
Campaign-funded travel: Congressional disclosures are not required for campaign-related trips paid for by political campaigns or campaign-related organizations such as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), or a Political Action Committee (PAC). However, campaigns are required to disclose such expenditures.
Foreign government-funded travel: Members and staff are allowed to accept trips paid for by a foreign government provided the travel complies with the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA) or the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (FGDA).
Friend-funded travel: Under certain instances, members and staff may accept free travel from a personal friend for purposes not related to their official duties.
While these methods of travel do not have to be disclosed, our database shows that members and staffers will sometimes disclose these trips nonetheless.
What does it mean to be a trip "approver"?
Every privately financed trip must be approved by a member of Congress. A member will approve his or her own trips, as well as the trips taken by his or her office staff. Therefore, a list of trips taken by a member is a subset of the list of trips approved by the member.
Trips by committee staff are approved a bit differently. Most committee staff are under the direct control of the chairman, who is a member of the majority party. However, the ranking minority member also controls some staff. Likewise, subcommittee staffing comes from the committee budget. Therefore, many times, a trip by a committee or subcommittee staffer will be approved by the committee chairman. As a result, the chairmen are likely to have approved more trips than average members of Congress.