As tensions rose in the Middle East and around the globe last year, Members of Congress and their aides accepted hundreds of overseas trips on the dime of some of the world’s wealthiest companies and countries.
From Qatar to Korea, Members — often accompanied by their spouses and staff — took more than $2.3 million in overseas travel from international corporations and foreign nations seeking to lobby the U.S. government, according to an analysis of disclosure forms.
As usual, half of the money covered lavish trips to China, Japan and a host of countries in Southeast Asia. But in a sign of the new, post-Sept. 11, 2001, global atmosphere, lawmakers and Congressional staff took about $500,000 worth of trips to less conventional Islamic locales in the Middle East and Asia — including Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
The disclosure forms do not include travel for official government business, which is typically picked up by taxpayers and disclosed separately.
Lawmakers who accepted travel to the region often rang up hefty bills for their sponsors. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), for example, accepted $69,553 worth of travel to the Middle East, Kazakhstan and India — well more than any other Member.
The governments of Kuwait and Qatar —two of United States’ strongest Muslim allies — joined the Islamic Institute in treating a handful of lawmakers to more than $130,000 worth of weeklong tours of their countries.
U.S. and foreign companies also sponsored more than $125,000 in travel and accommodations to Egypt and Turkey.
On one such trip, a half-dozen House aides traveled to Turkey on behalf of the Turkish government and a range of corporations. The companies included three international giants that are vying for a multibillion-dollar contract to rebuild neighboring Iraq after the war — Bechtel International, Washington Group International and Halliburton.
In another trip, a New York-based Turkish organization, the ITKiB Association, paid about $50,000 to sponsor an eight-day trip for Wexler and Reps. Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Kay Granger (R-Texas) to Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey. Wexler, his wife and two aides accounted for nearly half of the cost of the trip.
In all, Turkish corporations and the government spent $86,000 on travel for U.S. lawmakers and staff.
The trips courtesy of the governments of Turkey, Kuwait and Qatar raised eyebrows among some political analysts.
“Kuwait and Qatar are not doing this for their good health,” said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. “They are doing it to benefit their countries with U.S. foreign aid and foreign policy.”
James Thurber, a political science professor at American University, added: “It would be better for the U.S. government to pay for the trips by Members of Congress and their staffs than to have other nations and foreign companies pay for this because they can be more independent and objective in making policy with regard to those countries.”
Not all travel to the region was funded by Middle East countries. The U.S.-based Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation paid for a series of $10,000 trips to predominantly Muslim countries for lawmakers such as Wexler, as well as Reps. Jim Davis (D-Fla.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
The center, which is funded by SlimFast founder and major Democratic fundraiser Daniel Abraham, spent more than $85,000 ushering Members and staff through Kuwait, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Syria.
Meanwhile, the Aspen Institute — a nonpartisan think tank — sponsored about two-dozen Members of Congress for a four-day conference on Islam. But instead of flying the group to the Middle East, the mid-January, 2002, session was held at a resort in Punta Mita, Mexico.
Among the attendees at the $115,000 conference were Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), now the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Robert Bennett (R-Utah), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.), and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). Several lawmakers also brought their spouses.
Post-9/11 military action in Afghanistan also produced about $50,000 in travel to neighboring “stans,” including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
Wexler and his wife took several trips through the region, including a $29,950 tour of Kazakhstan courtesy of the Jewish Congress for Kazakhstan.
In total, Wexler, his wife and his staff accepted $86,334.18 in trips, according to the travel forms for last year.
Wexler, a member of the House International Relations Committee, has been “incredibly involved in the Middle East peace process,” said aide Jonathan Katz.
“He has to build up trust among the leaders in the region,” added Katz, who took his own $6,314 trip to Kuwait paid for by the U.S. ally.
Wexler also was among a dozen lawmakers who accepted invitations from the Confederation of Indian Industry to visit New Delhi in early January of last year.
Wexler and his wife joined Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), Shelley Berkley (Nev.) and Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) — as well as their spouses — for a four-day fact-finding trip in India that cost a total of $72,000.
After the trip to India, Crowley and his wife met up with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) and his son in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The trips, which cost from $3,500 to $4,500, were covered by a coalition of Bangladesh businesses, including the Bangladesh Garment Industry Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
The House Democrats also spent a few nights in an official residence of the Bangladesh government at no cost, according to the travel forms.
Crowley, who accepted a total of $21,407 from various interest groups, is the chairman of both the Indian and Bangladesh caucuses in the House.
Crowley’s chief of staff, Chris McCannell, said that the trips helped his boss learn more about the Indian and Bangladesh communities, which are heavily represented in Crowley’s Brooklyn-based district.
“As the district becomes more multiethnic, you need to be able to learn their issues, too,” McCannell said.
McCannell also said that Crowley found his tours of garment factories in Bangladesh helpful.
“He learned a lot about what the garment industry does to empower women by letting them work outside the home,” he said.
Lawmakers and staff accepted more than $1.4 million in travel (out of the $2.3 million total) to China and Southeast Asia in 2002, the documents reveal.
In China, two government-sponsored business groups sponsored nearly $500,000 in tours of Taiwan for scores of Congressional staffers.
The Chinese National Association of Industry and Commerce and the Chinese International Economic Cooperative Association flew about 100 staffers to Taiwan during the year.
Meanwhile, the Aspen Institute paid more than $213,000 in 2002 on several trips to mainland China. One trip from March 29 to April 7 featured a dozen Members of Congress and their spouses, such as Sens. Paul Sarbanes (D- Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) as well as Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). Then-Rep. Connie Morrella (R- Md.), who lost re-election, also attended.
Lawmakers and staff also took $600,000 in trips to Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia courtesy of the likes of the U.S. ASEAN Business Council, the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council, the U.S. Indonesia Society and the governments of South Korea and Japan.
In another notable trip to a global hotspot, the Lexington Institute paid for a half-dozen House Members to tour Havana, Cuba, at a cost of about $36,850.
Back in Washington, opinion is divided over the value of the foreign-sponsored trips, which are known alternately as “fact-finding” missions — or junkets.
Supporters say the trips serve a valuable purpose by educating Members of Congress about parts of the globe that they have little first-hand knowledge. While others contend that the trips provide foreign countries and the world’s largest corporations an unprecedented opportunity to influence U.S. lawmakers.
“I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t ban these trips because you can learn a lot on them,” said Sabato. “But at the same time it’s always worrisome when foreign governments or interest groups spend tens of thousands of dollars on individual Members or staff.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) recorded one of the most expensive trips of the year, traveling to Paris to participate in the opening of a fashion show that included some of his late mother’s clothing.
The six-day trip, costing nearly $22,000, was paid for by cosmetics giant L’Oreal, according to the forms.
Snowe fell just short of Kennedy’s mark with a $20,000 trip to accept an honorary degree from the American College of Greece in Athens.
Snowe racked up another $21,000 in trips during the year, making her the largest Senate recipient of travel in 2002.
Snowe was followed by Boxer, who took four trips totaling $30,000 with her husband to various events sponsored by the Aspen Institute.
On the other side of the Capitol, no House Member came close to matching Wexler.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was a distant second with nearly $40,000 in trips with his wife to Qatar and Malaysia.
Rohrabacher, a member of the International Relations Committee, “never travels without his wife,” his spokesman said.
Other top travelers in the House last year include then-Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), who retired from Congress at the end of last year.
Not all Senators and House Members accepted travel from corporations and governments last year.
According to a survey of the forms, about half of the Members of the House and Senate reported no traveling reimbursements from outside groups.
Staffers racked up some hefty tabs as well as lawmakers. Susan McCue, chief of staff to Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), accepted $19,650.21 for four trips last year to Ireland, Guatemala, France and Malaysia.
“That was certainly more travel than usual for me,” said McCue, who has only one trip planned for this year.
McCue’s tally falls well short of the tab rung up by one senior House aide two years ago. In 2000, Susan Hirshmann, then-chief of staff to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), reported that she took $41,000 worth of trips paid for by corporations and interest groups.