The State Department, which oversees cultural-exchange trips under a 1961 law called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, makes no accounting of who travels under the program or what happens while they are overseas.
State Department officials say restrictions are not put on cultural-exchange trips to other countries because of U.S. government concern that such restrictions might limit other types of exchanges. The department spends about $600 million a year on its cultural-exchange bureau, including funding for academic awards such as Fulbright scholarships for Americans and foreigners. Many other government departments — from the National Park Service to the Office of Government Ethics — run their own international exchange programs for foreigners.
Foreign governments pay the bills
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Oversight of exchange trips for congressional staff falls into a bureaucratic no-man’s land. Under rules written by Congress, the ethics committees in the House and Senate can only check to make sure that trips are approved by the State Department. A State Department official said that it’s up to the congressional ethics offices to review what happens during the travel.
When approving trips sponsored by U.S. companies and other interests, the congressional ethics committees vet itineraries to make sure they don’t include entertainment or “recreational activities.” By contrast, those appear to be an integral part of cultural-exchange trips, which face no such restrictions.
On a 2011 trip to Thailand, for instance, staffers spent an afternoon at the beach at Hua Hin, a resort town frequented by the Thai royal family. They also had lunch at a winery and visited an elephant preserve.
Most trips to Thailand include a visit to the massage school at Wat Pho and an inexpensive tailor where staffers can buy suits and dresses, said an official in the Thai Embassy’s political section.
“Like other countries, we want them to know an overview about Thailand,” the official said. “Especially, we become friends so we know each other.”
Ethan Levin and Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.