When Members of Congress and their staffs take free trips abroad – something they’re doing in record numbers these days – their preferred destination is Israel. And picking up the tab to the tune of $1.7 million last year, was a charitable tax-exempt arm of AIPAC called the America Israel Education Foundation.
When the role of other sponsors is added in, private groups spent $2 million to take lawmakers and their aides to Israel, and that was more than one third of their total worldwide non-governmental travel expenses, according to the website LegiStorm, which compiles Congressional travel data.
In all, the Members of Congress and their staffers took 1,887 free trips last year for a total cost of nearly $6 million, more than in any year since reforms took effect in 2008 following the Jack Abramoff influence peddling scandal. The pre-Abramoff record was reached in 2003-2005 when there were more than 4,000 annual trips at an average annual cost of about $10 million, according to LegiStorm and National Journal.
“Lobbyists and those who employ them have not been allowed to directly finance privately funded congressional travel abroad since 2007,” National Journal reported. Many of the private interests footing the bill for international congressional travel are tied closely to lobbying operations in Washington, most notably AIPAC and its foundation, which share the same address.
Lobbyists may not be able to openly pick up the tab for the trips, but they to accompany the visitors in Israel to make sure they hear and see the right things.
Rounding out the top five favorite destinations last year were Turkey, India, Ethiopia and Azerbaijan.
These numbers don’t include the official foreign travel of members and staff – called CODELs, for Congressional Delegations – paid for by taxpayers and often euphemistically referred to as “study missions.”
Domestically, reported LegiSlate, “the Congressional Institute, a group that bills itself as non-partisan but is run by top Republican lobbyists and former staff, was the biggest sponsor of trips in 2013. The organization sponsored large retreats for top staff, paying for 474 Republicans to go in all.”