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.