“Lots of things are allowed on these foreign trips that are not allowed on any other kind of trip,” said Jock Friedly, the founder of LegiStorm, a congressional-transparency Web site. “It’s clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this.”
Follow the rules
The trips highlight inconsistencies in tough ethics rules Congress set for itself. Although registered foreign lobbyists can’t buy a $2 cup of coffee for a congressional staffer in Washington, they are allowed to invite, plan and accompany a staffer on a trip costing $10,000 or more. Nor is there any requirement about how much time is spent on work related to Congress.
Congress overhauled the rules for travel after the 2005 scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had paid for lavish trips for several lawmakers and their families before his 2006 guilty plea on fraud and bribery charges. After Democrats won control of Congress in midterm elections, they passed legislation governing the rules for travel funded by organizations that hire lobbyists, requiring pre-approval of trip itineraries and limiting travel to a single day.
For travel sponsored by companies and other private interests, staffers must submit itineraries to House and Senate ethics committees for approval before departing and also make a full accounting of costs after the trip has concluded. The rules continue to tighten: starting in April, lawmakers and staff will have to submit trips for pre-approval even earlier — 30 days beforehand, up from 14.
By contrast, the costs, itineraries and other details for cultural-exchange trips are not disclosed. When costs are voluntarily added to disclosure forms, they typically run about $10,000 for a week-long trip, including first-class or business-class airfare.
More than a dozen countries have employed lobbyists to help strategize or recruit staffers to attend the trips, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department.
One foreign lobbyist who helped set up cultural exchanges said the trips were an effective way to make Hill staff sympathetic to the host country’s issues in Congress.
“People would come back and they would think a little different,” said the lobbyist, who requested anonymity for his client.
Lobbyists for foreign countries use the trips to build relationships with staffers and often contact them about legislative business after the trips are over, public records show. More than 200 times from 2008 to 2010, staffers who went on the foreign trips were contacted by lobbyists for the host country to talk about legislation or issues concerning trade and foreign relations, according to a Post analysis of foreign lobbying data provided by the Sunlight Foundation.