As the pandemic ebbs, Minnesota lawmakers and their staff resume taking free trips
WASHINGTON — Among the things that returned after the nation emerged from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic were the free trips members of Congress and their staff accepted from special interest groups, and Minnesota’s federal lawmakers helped this type of travel make a comeback.
Minnesota’s members of Congress and their staffers took more than two dozen trips last year to places as diverse as Fargo, N.D., Spain and Tel Aviv, Israel. Those trips were valued at more than $63,000 and were paid for by a wide range of organizations, including the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, the Consumer Technology Association and the United Nations Foundation.
Most of the trips were taken by the staff members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation and the travel was totally bipartisan. But some lawmakers also accepted free trips.
The day after winning re-election in November, Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, traveled to Spain at the expense of the Rippon Society, a centrist Republican public policy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Stauber’s trip was also funded by the Franklin Center for Global Policy, non-partisan, non-profit that brings together members of Congress with their counterparts in parliaments in other countries. The total cost of the trip was $20,286.32.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th District, traveled last March to Guatemala and Honduras with her policy adviser, Ryan Morgan.
The trips were funded by Witness for Peace, a non-profit that says its mission is to “build transnational grassroots solidarity to resist U.S. government and corporate policies that contribute to violence, poverty and oppression in the Americas” and the Institute for Policy Studies, which calls itself a “progressive organization dedicated to building a more equitable, ecologically sustainable and peaceful society.” The trips were valued at $2,115.15 each.
“As a member of Congress, a part of my job and my staff’s job includes having in-person visits to parts of the world impacted by U.S. foreign policy. This work has informed our oversight work, and multiple pieces of legislation,” Omar said in an emailed statement. “These are approved trips by the Congressional Committee on Ethics are officially connected travel related to the traveler’s official or representational duties.”
Still, the privately financed trips give funders enviable access to members of Congress and their staff. And they are on the upswing.
According to Legistorm, a non-partisan website that tracks congressional travel, trips taken by lawmakers and staffers peaked in 2019 at 2,317 trips valued at more than $7.8 million. Those trips declined sharply after the pandemic hit a – to a mere 321 in 2020 – and are now making a comeback.
Last year, there were 1,783 privately funded trips for members of Congress and their staff, worth about $6.6 million. The last time there was a sharp drop off in gift travel was after the reforms were implemented in 2007 preventing lobbyists for corporate clients from planning or paying for a lawmaker’s trip.
But there are loopholes. The rules don’t apply if a trip is paid for by a foreign government or a nonprofit organization, even if it’s tied to an organization with a political bent, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a pro-Israel organization.
For instance, the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, paid for Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Rep. Angie Craig, D -2nd District, to travel to Tel Aviv in 2019 on separate trips. Each trip was valued at about $31,000.
Last year, Rep. Betty McCollum’s communication director, Amanda Yanchury, also traveled to Tel Aviv. But that trip, valued at $3,591, was paid for by the Rotary Club and the Woodside Portola Valley Foundation.
In her form to the ethics committee, which must approve these types of trips, Yanchury wrote “(Congresswoman McCollum, (D-4th District) is deeply engaged with issues related to Israel and Palestine.”
“As communications director, I speak and engage on this issue often,” Yanchury said. “This will be my first visit to the region; firsthand experience in the area will strengthen my ability to frame effective communications and messaging related to my boss’s policy positions.”
Craig did not report any privately funded travel last year, nor did Smith and fellow Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Rep. Brad Finstad, R-1st District, came to office through a special election in August, also did not report any gift travel.
But all other Minnesota lawmakers or their staffers accepted privately funded trips last year.
Ryan Scoville, a law professor at Marquette University Law School, said there are many reasons lawmakers take privately funded trips. One is that a member of Congress may learn something that makes him or her a better legislator, Scoville said.
He also said “the destinations and perks probably seem quite enticing in many cases” and “the likelihood of embarrassment is pretty low even if a funding source would raise questions among constituents, given that few people closely monitor this activity.”
Even after reforms, there is a wide range of organizations paying for airfare, hotels, meals and other perks for lawmakers.
“Not all sources of funding are created equal,” Scoville said. “Some may have an agenda that aligns with the interests of most constituents, while others may not.”
Minnesota lawmakers’ staff are frequent flyers
U.S. House rules require members of Congress and congressional staff to file reports detailing any travel-related expenses reimbursed by a non-government source. Lawmakers must deliver travel documents for each trip to the clerk of the House after the trip is over, where the documents become public record.
Those records showed that more than a dozen staffers of Minnesota House members took free trips last year.
Williamsburg, Va., a restored colonial town where actors in period costume depict daily life in the streets and stores, was a favored destination.
Five staffers from the offices of Stauber, Emmer, and Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-7th District, traveled to the tourism mecca last year at a cost of about $800 a piece, expenses that were paid for by the Congressional Institute, a non-profit whose president, Mark Strand, is a former staffer for GOP lawmakers.
Florida is popular, too. Emmer’s legislative assistant, Dorothy Clark, traveled to West Palm Beach and Clewiston, Fla., last April on a trip that was paid for by the South Florida Agricultural Foundation. Fischbach’s communication director, Lauren Weber, also went on that trip, valued at about $1,100 per staffer.
Clark also traveled to Canada and Iceland last October at a trip worth $3,858 that was paid for by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.
Another Emmer senior staffer, Lizzy Fallon, went to Las Vegas in January of last year on a trip that cost $1,570 that was paid for by the Consumer Technology Association.
Fischbach’s deputy chief of staff, Nick Lunneborg – who had also visited Williamsburg – and Stauber staffer Eric Gebhard traveled to Fargo, N.D. on a trip paid for by the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Education Fund. Lunneborg valued the trip at $805 and Gebhard at $1,188.
Meanwhile, Omar deputy chief of staff Kelly Misselwitz visited Denmark and Kenya at the expense of the United Nation’s Foundation. The trip cost $8,374.
Several staffers for Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd District, also went on privately funded trips last year, including Beverly Hart, the lawmaker’s former legislative director, who traveled to Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom on a trip funded by the Third Way Foundation, a center-left think tank.
Phillips press secretary Deacon Taylor said the purpose of the trips taken by Hart and other two other staffers in the lawmaker’s office were “fact finding, relationship building and education.”
There were also other gift trips taken by Minnesota congressional staffers to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Des Moines, Omaha, Sioux Falls, S.D. and other places.
Members of Congress also participate in another form of travel – congressional delegation trips, known as CODELs, that is also becoming more popular as the nation emerges from the pandemic. Those trips often have overseas destinations and involve costly military transport. Because it is official travel, private organizations don’t pay for CODELs, the taxpayer does.
The cost of congressional delegation travel is difficult to determine. For instance, in 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that
congressional travel cost nearly $20 million, the highest figure ever recorded to date, based on data provided by the State Department,
which arranges official foreign travel for lawmakers. But that figure did not include hundreds of other trips for which the military provides transportation because the costs of using those military aircraft are never disclosed.