A map of the foreign governments that hosted Congressional staff on free trips (China is #1)

February 19, 2013

(SOURCE: Personal financial disclosure forms filed with the House and Senate and collected by Legistorm.com. GRAPHIC: T.W. Farnam, Alberto Cuadra and Kenneth W. Smith Jr. - The Washington Post.)

An extensive story by The Washington Post's T.W. Farnam reveals that not only are foreign governments hosting many members of Congress and senior Congressional staff on free trips to their countries, they're doing it in staggering numbers. And the country that has hosted by far the most such trips is China. Here's Farnam on why this is such a big deal:

More and more foreign governments are sponsoring such excursions for lawmakers and their staffs, though an overhaul of ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of free trips. This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor.

The overseas travel is covered by an exemption Congress granted itself for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.

The above map, put together by the Post's graphics team, shows where members of Congress and senior Congressional staff traveled on these foreign government-sponsored trips from 2006 to 2011. It's an interesting, and often surprising, glimpse of foreign lobbying. (You can also see an annotated list of who traveled where, and which members of Congress and political party they represent, here.)

U.S. security allies such as Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – who rely heavily on the continued support of U.S. policymakers – are naturally high on the list.

Still, I admit I was surprised to see China ranked as number one. Farnam reports some fascinating details on past China trips – stays at the Ritz-Carlton, banquets hosted by the Chinese government – as well as the American businesses that help coordinate them.

Under the ethics rules set by Congress, all funding in support of the cultural-exchange trips must come from foreign governments, in this case China. But the foundation that arranges the trips has its own corporate sponsors, such as Wal-Mart.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said the company funds the U.S.-Asia Foundation to reach congressional staffers. “We look at it as an opportunity to talk about Wal-Mart,” Buchanan said.

The foundation is one of four U.S. nonprofit groups that organize similar trips to China. Another one, the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, has donors including FedEx, Hershey and drug-maker Amgen as well as Chinese companies, according to the group’s Web site.

General Motors was not a member of the U.S.-Asia Foundation in 2010, when staffers visited the firm’s pavilion at the Shanghai expo, but it is today. “Anything we can do to educate lawmakers and staff on how a global business works is worth it,” said spokeswoman Heather Rosenker. “It’s smart business practice.”

U.S. businesses, after all, have shown deep interest in breaking into the Chinese market, which is not always easy to do without political assistance. That would seem to bolster potential concerns about having corporations help to fund the organizations that coordinate these free trips. But, Farnam explains, "Oversight of exchange trips for congressional staff falls into a bureaucratic no-man’s land."

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Max Fisher · February 19, 2013