News that the House Ethics Committee had quietly rescinded a rule about reporting congressional travel paid for by outside groups quickly rippled across Washington on Tuesday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared that the change, which means that representatives no longer need to include sponsored trips on their annual disclosures, should be reversed. "Congress must always move in the direction of more disclosure, not less," she said.
It's easy to see why. Data compiled by Legistorm, a site that collects data on congressional finances, shows just how regularly Congress heads out of town, and how much it costs.
Since 2000, when the Legistorm data begins, members of Congress have taken nearly 40,000(!) trips -- a quarter of them to destinations outside the country. Last year alone, the 535 members of Congress took almost 2,000 trips paid for by outside groups, with those groups paying over $6 million for the "privilege." Such data will still be available after the ethics rules change; the trips are also recorded with the House clerk. But the scale of the travel, particularly outside the country, reveals why making that information harder to access might be preferred by some representatives. As Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told the National Journal, "The more you can hide, the less accountable you can be."
Here's where Congress has traveled on outside groups' tabs since 2000.
All members of Congress
At first blush, this map doesn't seem that remarkable. Lots of travel to Turkey and Germany. But the scale of the map obscures things a bit.
Nearly 30,000 trips within the United States have been paid for by outside groups, so we took those off the map, given that the shading is done on a gradient. Turkey is actually in third on the overall list, behind Israel and Taiwan, both of which are small enough make it hard to spot them. If we place dots over each country, sized according to how much was spent to travel there, Israel and Taiwan jump out.
Or, better yet, we can zoom in on Asia, which includes the Middle East. (We could similarly zoom in on Europe, but all that you'd see is that Germany is darker in color, meaning it's been a more frequent travel destination.) On this map, you can see how prominent Turkey and Israel are, having been visited over 1,900 times by lawmakers who had those trips paid for by someone else. (Total cost to those two countries, which includes airfare and activities, etc.: $15.6 million. About $8,000 per free trip.)
Things get a little more interesting when you break down the travel by political party. Democrats and Republicans generally travel to the same places; the top 10 destinations of each party are about the same. But there are some differences.
Here's where the GOP has traveled.
And for the sake of clarity, a zoom-in on Asia.
Actually, Republicans are more likely to travel to Europe (again, on some outside group's dollar) than Democrats. We looked at every country in which members of one party made at least 20 more trips than the other. Here's where the Republicans go more.
Countries Republicans are more likely to visit:
- Taiwan (472 trips, 165 more)
- Britain (236 trips, 125 more)
- France (206 trips, 80 more)
- Germany (314 trips, 50 more)
- Algeria (62 trips, 41 more)
- Belgium (206 trips, 39 more)
- Sweden (42 trips, 22 more)
- Morocco (60 trips, 20 more)
- Switzerland (92 trips, 20 more)
And now, their colleagues from across the aisle. You can see how much lighter Europe is than for the Republicans.
And, again, a zoom-in on Asia.
And, here's where the Democrats went more often than Republicans.
Countries Democrats are more likely to visit:
- Cuba (209 trips, 108 more)
- Mexico (184 trips, 106 more)
- Israel (673 trips, 80 more)
- Colombia (86 trips, 71 more)
- China (188 trips, 46 more)
- Ethiopia (63 trips, 41 more)
- Jordan (63 trips, 37 more)
- Bahamas (31 trips, 28 more)
- India (107 trips, 25 more)
- Jamaica (36 trips, 25 more)
- Spain (94 trips, 25 more)
- Canada (112 trips, 23 more)
- Haiti (32 trips, 23 more)
- El Salvador (36 trips, 21 more)
- Bangladesh (21 trips, 20 more)
And if you're curious how the costs break down, we have that, too, from 2000 to 2014. This isn't filtered by the number of members of Congress from each party, which would likely mean one party or the other sees more trips. But this is the sort of data that House ethics just made slightly harder to find.