Congressional Staffers Take Free Travel

Foreign Governments Are Paying the Costs of the Trips

Washington — About a dozen congressional staffers flew business class on a trip to China last summer and stayed at luxury hotels while touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and receiving a “briefing on ancient artifacts and dynasties” at the Shanghai Museum.

The all-expenses-paid visit came courtesy of China. The Chinese government hosted a day of meetings with officials in Beijing followed by eight days packed with outings to destinations often frequented by tourists, along with a stop at a missile frigate and two others related to national security — the official theme of the trip.

More and more foreign governments are sponsoring such excursions for lawmakers and their staffs, although an overhaul of ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of free trips. This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, even though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor.

The overseas travel is covered by an exemption Congress granted itself for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.

A Washington Post examination of congressional disclosures revealed the extent of this congressional travel for the first time, finding that Hill staffers had reported taking 803 such trips in the six years ending in 2011. Lawmakers themselves are increasingly participating, disclosing 21 trips in 2011, more than double the figure in prior years.

The number of congressional trips could be far higher, because only lawmakers and senior congressional staff members are required to disclose the travel. A former senior aide on a congressional committee said that junior staffers were usually sent on the trips because they rarely had the chance to take official trips paid for by the U.S. government.

Some Hill employees have gone on repeated trips to the same country, and others chain them together, traveling directly from one expenses-paid visit to another.

China is by far the biggest sponsor of these trips, with senior staffers reporting more than 200 trips there over the six-year period, according to The Post’s review of 130,000 pages of disclosures collected by the Web site LegiStorm. Taiwan accounts for an additional 100 trips.

But other regions of the world are also well represented.

On a trip to Jordan, for instance, congressional staffers stayed at the Four Seasons in Amman, where they received an audience with the king. The group also visited the Dead Sea and the famed mosaics in Madaba and spent two days at the ancient cities of Petra and Jerash, according to an itinerary for the trip.

In Switzerland, staffers took a helicopter ride through the Alps to Monte Bre, hiking up the mountain for coffee at a summit cafe overlooking a lake, according to another itinerary.

Organizers of the trips say they’re an important way for U.S. government staff members to learn about the world with no cost to taxpayers. The trips are supposed to include visits to historical and cultural sites, including those frequented by tourists.