Privately funded congressional travel has long been a matter of public interest and sometimes controversy. Privately financed travel allows valuable opportunities for members and their staff to learn about important issues before the U.S. Congress. Moreover, private funding allows taxpayers to save money and provides lawmakers and their staff with numerous educational opportunities that otherwise might not be available to them.
Critics say that travel allows private interest groups to gain extraordinary access to public officials while sometimes providing extravagant and legally sanctioned perks. While most private travel has a serious and obvious educational purpose, some trips are thinly disguised opportunities for golfing or a vacation.
Whatever the merits of the trips, the LegiStorm database provides evidence for trips of both extremes. On the serious side, for example, a few staffers disclosed traveling to study a refugee crisis in African refugee camps.
Occasionally, the disclosed purposes of privately financed questions beg questions. In 2003, Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) traveled to London and Amsterdam to tour "the airport baggage hold security system". Why she needed to leave the country to study this matter is one issue but why her local Jacksonville Airport Authority would be willing to finance such a 6-day adventure is quite another.
In 2001, Royal Caribbean treated staffers, members and their family members to a weekend cruise around New York City. Travelers gave varying explanations, such as to study "ADA accommodations", referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act, or to "observe port and ship security procedures, including embarkation and disembarkation."
Former Rep. (and later Gov.) Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.) and Sen. (and presidential candidate) Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. (and current House Minority Leader) John Boehner (R-Ohio) did not hide the purpose of their trips as being to golf, even though ethics rules at the time required the trip to be "officially connected". Nor did staffer Bob Vinovich hide that he traveled to Houston in 2003 to golf. On the other hand, his boss, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), hid that he went to Scotland exclusively to golf with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Ney was sentenced to federal prison as a result of this trip and related indiscretions.
Even many trips with a business purpose had generous helpings of extracurricular activities to lure travelers. The North Carolina Agricultural Foundation, for example, hosted a 3-day trip in August 2003 to study the state's agriculture issues but travelers could also enjoy two days of golf at two separate courses, including the renowned Pinehurst.
Other trips are proof that travel has the potential to be both fun and enlightening. Three staffers for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) traveled to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to study the tourist attraction's "music education programs" and "plans for federal appropriations". In early 2005, congressional travelers jetted to Las Vegas, Nev. to, in the words of one participant, "study and tour the gaming industry".
Often times, the true nature of the trip is indecipherable, whether because the handwriting of the traveler is so poor or the traveler provides little clue. The purposes for thousands of trips are "fact-finding" or "educational", with no more details provided that might give the public any basis to judge merits. One staffer, for example, took a "fact-finding" trip to Washington, DC.
In some cases, no purpose whatsoever is listed, even for trips that might otherwise raise questions, such as a 2003 trip by a Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) staffer to Las Vegas courtesy of a gaming company. A staffer for Rep. Pat Danner (D-Mo.) filed a trip report that did not disclose a sponsor, a destination or even a purpose - leaving the public in the dark as to whether there was any trip to disclose in the first place.