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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Foreign Travel

Here is a follow-up to the question about foreign travel.

Kent Cooper writes at Roll Call:
Some members of Congress didn’t stick around Washington during the cold month of February, but they found better places to be on free trips to foreign lands.
The big free trips during February included eleven members on the trip to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation. Another fourteen went to Cartagena, Columbia, with expenses paid by the Aspen Institute, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Other members went to Japan, Australia, and Belgium. The trip to Australia for one member and his spouse was worth almost $50,000.
Family members also traveled free. Seventeen members of Congress took spouses along. Two members took their children. Another took their mother-in-law, all without cost to them.
These foundations are all real.  But other foreign travel has sketchier funding sources, as Shane Goldmacher explained at National Journal in January:
he 2007 rules prevent a lobbyist for a corporate client from planning or paying for a lawmaker's trip. But the same rules allow such a trip if it's paid for by a foreign government. So while it does remain illegal for, say, a Google lobbyist to plan and accompany a lawmaker on a free trip abroad, if that same lobbyist does so on behalf of Turkey, it's perfectly legal. And if that lobbyist happens to have both corporate and foreign-government clients (as most do), they can still go abroad so long as it's a country and not a company footing the bill.
And that's only one of the loopholes the influence industry has exploited to help lawmakers score free travel. Today, a wide network of nonprofits—many with a clear agenda and some with excruciatingly tight ties to Washington's biggest lobbying operations—are putting together international congressional excursions. Some of these paper nonprofits have no staff or space of their own; they simply share with a sister organization that lobbies. Yet ethics officials in Congress have deemed them to be independent enough. In one instance, a lobbyist literally registered a new nonprofit—in his own office—that went on to pay for congressional travel abroad.
Big corporations bankroll some nonprofits, whose trips, in turn, can feature stops at the businesses of their corporate funders. As a bonus, the growing use of 501(c)(3) nonprofits, which occupy the same charitable rung of the tax code as soup kitchens and the American Red Cross, means that the wealthy and corporate donors underwriting congressional travel can do so in secret and get a tax write-off along the way.
Feel free to make up your own Frank Underwood-style epigram.

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