Journalism in the Public Interest

Law Shrouds Details of Congressional Trips Abroad

Members of Congress normally have to disclose where they travel overseas, whom they visit and how much the trip cost — but not under a little-known State Department program that keeps those details and others a secret.

Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images file photo

When members of Congress or their staffers travel on a private group's dime, they are subject to a long list of requirements and restrictions, thanks to the Jack Abramoff scandal and that infamous picture of the grinning super-lobbyist with a congressman at a famous Scottish golf course.

Reforms in 2007 include preapproval of trips by the House or Senate ethics committee, rules barring lobbyists' involvement, limits on the length of a trip, and mandatory, prompt public disclosure of the cost, itinerary, purpose and so on.

But under a little-known exception, if a trip abroad that originates in the U.S. is paid for by a foreign government, virtually none of those restrictions and disclosure requirements applies.

Last week, we wrote about the Democratic House member from American Samoa, Eni Faleomavaega; his unusual interest in defending Bahrain during the crackdown on protests there last year; and his friend's lobbying firm that promotes the Gulf nation. Faleomavaega was in Bahrain last week, his second such trip in the last year that Bahrain paid for. On the first trip, he was accompanied by the president of the Bahrain American Council, which operates out of the lobbying firm’s Washington, D.C., offices.

The South Pacific island territory that Faleomavaega represents is nearly 10,000 miles from the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, but Faleomavaega justifies his interest because Bahrain is a “key ally” to the U.S. in the Middle East.

His trips there are allowed under a half-century-old law called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961. The post-Abramoff 2007 law that tightened congressional travel rules did not cover these MECEA trips.

The foreign emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution bars public officials from accepting gifts from foreign governments unless explicitly authorized by Congress. The 1961 MECEA law sought to promote “cultural exchange” by allowing the secretary of state to approve programs that pay for “visits and interchanges between the United States and other countries of leaders, experts in fields of specialized knowledge or skill, and other influential or distinguished persons.”

There are currently 86 approved MECEA trip programs involving more than 50 foreign governments, according to the State Department. The full list of participating governments — from Canada to Yemen — is here. The House and Senate ethics committees maintain a master list of approved programs, but spokespeople for the committees declined to release the list.

The State Department also declined to release it. “The details on them are proprietary for each of the foreign governments,” said a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said the department does not maintain a list of trips taken every year under MECEA programs because members of Congress and staffers aren't required to report them. The ethics committees also don't keep lists. So it appears that no one is tracking how much money foreign governments spend on the trips, who goes and whether the trips actually meet the goals of the program.

The recent trips to Bahrain were taken under a new memorandum of understanding between the kingdom and the State Department to allow congressional travel there. The agreement was created amid a public-relations effort to protect the country’s image in the United States as Bahrain cracked down on protests.

Typically, when a member of Congress takes a trip paid by a private group, he or she must get preapproval from the ethics committee and file a detailed public disclosure form shortly after the trip. The trip must be related to the member's official duties. If the sponsor employs a lobbyist, the trip must be limited to a single night’s lodging. Members of Congress can accept longer foreign travel from groups that do not employ lobbyists, but it can last no longer than seven days.

None of those conditions applies to MECEA trips. Where members go, who accompanies them, whom they meet and how much is spent — all of this is unreported. The sole requirement is that members must note any MECEA trips on their annual personal financial disclosures, but the only detail disclosed is which foreign government paid for the trip.

There is also a significant delay because personal financial disclosures are not due until May of the following year. And while senior House and Senate staffers — those making about $120,000 or more — must file financial disclosures. Junior staffers do not, however, so they don't have to report the trips.

“Official travel and travel sponsored by foreign governments, while not as troubling as lobbyist-sponsored travel, certainly should be subject to full transparency,” says Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen who helped draft the 2007 law tightening privately funded travel rules.

Here is an example of a travel disclosure form for a typical, privately funded trip. It details a trip to Israel in August by Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga. The American Israel Education Fund, a charity group affiliated with the pro-Israel lobbying organization AIPAC, paid for the trip. On the form, which must be filed with the clerk of the House within 15 days of the end of the trip, Broun had to disclose that his wife also went, and had to provide the reason for the trip; the costs broken down by travel, lodging, meals and itemized other expenses; a seven-page itinerary; and a preapproval form that he had to file with the ethics committee before embarking. The preapproval form requires the member to certify that a group that employs lobbyists is not paying for the trip.

Here, in contrast, is an example of the disclosure of a MECEA trip that Rep. Health Shuler, D-N.C., took to Sri Lanka in 2009:

That trip later prompted a protest. Ethnic Tamils argued it was a propaganda trip after Shuler defended conditions in refugee camps run by Sri Lanka, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported in June 2009.

We know about Faleomavaega’s trips to Bahrain only because the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a New York City group that worked with the Bahraini government to organize the travel, voluntarily posted a synopsis about last year’s trip on the institute's website.

"It's a normal Bahraini MECEA trip that is intended obviously to give the Bahraini point of view," Humpty Dumpty Institute Executive Director Joseph Merante said last week. Faleomavaega attended along with Reps. Jim Himes, D-Conn.; Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; and Dan Burton, R-Ind. Merante added that the institute seeks balance on its trips and went out of its way to add meetings with opposition groups to the itinerary.

A few other MECEA trips that have surfaced in news reports:

  • In March 2010, The Washington Post reported on an upcoming trip to Switzerland advertised to congressional staffers as featuring "culinary delights and Swiss hospitality" in a country that's "all about thriving cutting-edge technology in beautiful landscapes."
  • In October, three Republican congressmen, including two members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, toured the Alberta oil sands on a MECEA trip paid by the Canadian government. The energy committee last year was involved in pushing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil to the U.S. The trip was first reported in the Canadian media.
  • Also last October, as part of a push to convince the Obama administration to sell an advanced model of the F-16 fighter jet to Taiwan, senator-turned-Taiwan-lobbyist Al D’Amato of New York wrote a letter to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., pitching her on travel to Taiwan. “Please know that no U.S. taxpayer funds would be used to pay for your trip, as Taiwan would cover your trip via the State Department’s Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act,” D’Amato wrote.

The Taiwan example shows how lobbyists can be involved in organizing MECEA trips — participation that would not be allowed for other types of trips.

These few trips are known only because they happened to attract media attention. Because of the loophole in travel disclosure rules, it’s difficult to immediately conclude much else about MECEA trips — for instance, to identify trends or evaluate whether they live up to their stated purpose.

So, what we have is an unconstitutional law enacted and policed by its beneficiaries, which somehow escapes both legal reform and oversight.

Nope.  Nothing shady going on here.  Certainly, dragging Gillibrand to Taiwan (for example) was in the best interests of the United States and not to scam her into representing another nation’s interests.

As I’ve said before, no official should be leaving the country (heck, they shouldn’t be allowed off the path between their representatives and Washington) except on official government business for the duration of their term.  I’ll be happy to chip in for an immigration lawyer for any politician who thinks it’s more important to mug for the camera in China or Israel or France than represent his or her constituents.

I’m surprised the lobbyists aren’t all over this from the opposite direction.  I mean, if our enemies can find an excuse to secretly woo a public official, then blocking Citibank from seducing them seems silly.

I could not help but notice John McCain and Joe Leiberman, US Senators and ongoing “war-mongers” appearing in Turkey, lobbying for American intervention in the civil war there. Does Turkey as a proxy for Syria appear on the Senate Approved Travel list. Very likely does. I should mention that Lindsay Graham, the third member of this triumvirate micro mob was nowhere to be seen in the crowd. Suggest two FOIA suits to liberate the Congressional and State Dept. lists. Also suggest that the afore mentioned triumvirate all represent industries that would benefit from an American attack on the Syrian military. Finally, I am sickened by what we see in Syria but we cannot intervene in every dispute everywhere. Democracy will raise its wimpy head somehow amongst the Syrian people. Just dont send our politicos to oversee it; they have not been very effective at maintaining our own system here at home lately.

Candis Allwein

April 11, 2012, 1:12 p.m.

it might be revealing to see if Obama took advantage of any of these trips when he was senator from IL. There have been things out there out there suggesting funding of his education by middle easterners residing in the US. Don’t know if that is credible.

Justin Elliott

April 11, 2012, 2:06 p.m.

@john—one point, it’s not unconstitutional. The foreign emoluments clause of the Constitution (which I link to in the piece) allows for gifts from foreign governments with the consent of Congress. So no one is disputing the constitutionality of MECEA.

clrence swinney

April 11, 2012, 3 p.m.

Why not get smart?
Fed Fund Election—6 months—3 primary 3 general—debate a week=12=adequate to evaluate candidates
No $$$

Members of Congress and White House can accept nothing with a financial value—keep em on the job off the road—-

Progressive Flat Tax by group No Deductions
burn tax book start anew

clarence swinney

April 11, 2012, 3:02 p.m.

Ruined our great Savings and Loan Industry
Closed Fairness Doctrine that has allowed Mush Dimbaugh types on our public airwaves
Closed Revenue Sharing
Since 1980, initiated our involvement in 10 foreign conflicts
Repealed Glass Steagall—took deposits in 7000 banks and put 80% in (10) Too Big To Fail
Modernization of Commodities Market—from Investment to Casino Derivative Of America
2 very dumb invasions of two of most poor -most unarmed nations on earth=OIL OIL OIL
Ruined our International Reputation as a Do Good Christian nation to Big Bully Devil.
Stood by as Freak Marketeers ruined our Housing Industry.
Stood by as Casino Derivative of America ruined the World Financial Industry.
Impeached a Great President for petty political gains that created long term animosity between two parties.
Attempted to destroy Safety Nets that make America great middle class
Implemented Tax Codes that permitted redistribution of Wealth to top (10%)  who now own (73%) of all Net Wealth and (83%) of all Financial Wealth and take home (50%) of all individual income.
Today, they have taken America to ranking in oecd nations as (# 2) as Least Taxed—-(# 2) as least taxed corporations and horror horror (# 4) on Inequality from bottom 5 in 1980.
Since 1980, their Spend & Borrow policies are, mainly, responsible for adding 14,000 Billion to a 1000 Billion debt
Fought the great GI Bill.
Fought the WWII Draft
Installed strict laws which created 57 % of prison inmates on Marijuana use charges which make us lead the world in prison population.
Refuse to control the drug Beer.
There are many many more baddies.
REPUBLICAN CONSERVATIVES AS WAS DONE IN 2001-2002-2003-2004-2005-2006.
clarence swinney political historian Lifeaholics of America

Cheryl Fontaine

April 11, 2012, 4:03 p.m.

Vote out every teapublicon and every DINO. It is the only way, the ONLY was the righteous builders of this country will ever again share in the prosperity, good health, and bounty of nature that we so assiduously built and kept guard over for so many generations.

Constance M Tomlin

April 11, 2012, 6:29 p.m.

With the threat of terrorism hovering over this country and the corrupttion that is rampant by self-serving politicians, all foreign travel by elected officials should be scrutinized closely.  They are elected to represent their constituents here in the U.S. For foreign affairs we have departments within the Government for that purpose who are accountable to the Government.

What about looking to see if these trips were disclosed/should have been disclosed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act?

Justin, you’re right on a literal reading of the text, but I can’t help think that the Constitution’s exception for Congressional approval was never meant to include a blanket approval.  Otherwise, what’s to stop Congress from passing a law that it’s OK to accept any bribes from China?  A normal law shouldn’t be able to override the Constitution.

Candis, I doubt it.  I don’t trust Obama any more than any other politician, but as I understand things, Muslims look at him as the lowest of the low, born Muslim (it follows the father, like “you’re Jewish if your mother’s Jewish”) but is a practicing Christian, and therefore a convert.  If any of those backward governments touched him, the backlash would be far worse for them than it would be for Obama here.

(That said, I’m sure he ended up in quite a few places of interest.)

Claude, of course, we could also stop supporting the Syrian government by allowing the sale of surveillance hardware and helping oppress the people by banning the sale of anti-surveillance technology to their people.  I’d rather we not attack, too (though better there than Iran).  Democracy would have a pretty good shot from what little I hear on the ground, if we could quit stamping it out every few days.

John Lewis-Dickerson

April 12, 2012, 6:25 p.m.

“You can’t use tact with a Congressman! A Congressman is a hog! You must take a stick and hit him on the snout!” ~ From ‘The Education of Henry Adams’, By Henry Adams (American journalist, historian, academic and novelist, 1838-1918)

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