“Congress is a very special group of people, more than 80 percent of them never left the United States, they live in their own world, so I’m not amazed about this Russophobia which is being demonstrated by the Congress at the moment.”
— Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov, TV interview with France 24, Dec. 16, 2014
Sergei Lavrov is one of the toughest diplomats in the world, and delights in rhetorical jabs. So it was no surprise that he took a shot at Congress after lawmakers passed a bill that would widen sanctions on Russia because of its activities in Ukraine. Blaming “Russophobia” in an interview with French television, Lavrov accused members of being insular and living “in their own world.” Then he offered this startling number — that 80 percent of members of Congress have never even left the United States.
His claim was repeated in news accounts around the world, including in The Washington Post. Readers wanted to know: Is there any truth in Lavrov’s claim about congressional foreign travel record?
Congressional rules require members to disclose official travel for both local and foreign trips. These are trips that are relevant to the members’ responsibilities in office, such as congressional delegation or committee travels.
We checked financial disclosures that are available online: reports of expenditures for official foreign travel for members of the House, and privately funded travel for the House and Senate. Privately funded travel means trips that are sponsored by private organizations but are taken for official business.
First, The Fact Checker analyzed the 2013 foreign travel expenditures for members of the House, published in the Congressional Record. The 2013 expenditure reports are the most recent ones for a full calendar year, and the members in office also were the ones who voted on the sanctions bill.
In 2013, at least 164 members of the House traveled out of the United States on official business — or 30 percent of the House. Members averaged from one to 17 trips. Five members traveled to Russia in 2013 on official business.
The Fact Checker analyzed the House records because they were available online, and in a format that allowed us to create a database. The Senate records are public, but only are available for review in person at the Senate’s Office of Public Records.
For a fuller picture, we contacted LegiStorm, a nonpartisan group that tracks congressional salaries, travel records and other spending. LegiStorm’s travel database tracks privately-financed trips for all current and past members of Congress, and its database dates to Jan. 1, 2000.
Among current members in Congress, including nonvoting members, 417 — that is, 77 percent — have taken privately-funded trips out of the country between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 17, 2014. There were 13 members who traveled to Russia (Moscow, St. Petersburg or Tomsk) during that time.
There were 36 representatives on the Congressional Record expenditure reports who were not listed in the LegiStorm database — as in, members who took official trips in 2013 that were not privately-financed. Between both databases, there were 453 members who traveled out of the country on official business, either in 2013 or at some point in the past 15 years. That is 84 percent of the current Congress — and almost certainly is higher because our analysis of expenditure reports was just for one year and did not include senators.
Our analysis excludes personal vacations or study-abroad trips.
The claim of an insular Congress is not new. In 2000, a New York Times survey found the portrayal of members as “homebound and uninterested in the world” to be a myth. The survey of 60 senators and 254 representatives, from a cross section of the Senate and the House, found that 93 percent of members held passports and used them. Nearly one-third had studied or worked abroad. One in five claimed to speak a foreign language “well enough to conduct business beyond America’s borders.”
Members of Congress fare well compared to the American population as a whole. According to the State Department, there are 121,512,341 U.S. passports in circulation this year — just under 40 percent of the population. And a smaller percentage actually travel overseas.
Officials at the foreign minister’s office or the Russian Embassy did not respond to The Fact Checker’s request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
An analysis of just the current House of Representatives showed Lavrov’s claim to be false. And a deeper look at congressional travel over the past 15 years found the statistic is, in fact, the exact opposite of his claim: at least 84 percent of the current Congress have traveled overseas.
Lavrov’s assertion earns a resounding Four Pinocchios. Or, to put it in terms Lavrov might appreciate: Chetyre Buratino.
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