- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Washington is once again hurtling toward a budget crisis, but you couldn’t tell from the travel itineraries of members of Congress.

Take, for instance, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, who last month escaped the normally sweltering August in the nation’s capital by darting off to western Canada.

The Canadian government picked up the tab so that Ms. Heitkamp could take what she called an “essential” trip to tour various energy sites in Alberta to talk about issues like oil sands and the TransCanada pipeline (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the trip had been funded by American taxpayers based on information provided by Sen. Heitkamp’s office.)

She was among dozens of lawmakers who used the traditional summer recess in Congress to travel the far reaches of the globe on someone else’s dime.

Some charged their trips to the government as official business related to their committee assignments. Others, like Rep. Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. John B. Larson, Connecticut Democrat, let special interests pay their way in the name of fact-finding.

Mr. Lucas, Mr. Larson and other lawmakers traveled to Ireland as guests of the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange, two think tanks.

The lawmakers reported that they met with Irish officials to discuss policy, but also took in some of the best of the Emerald Isle’s tourism sites — the Guinness Storehouse, Leinster House, the Irish Parliament, Dublin Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, Newman House and Christ Church Cathedral.

Such trips catch the eye of ethics watchers such as Kent Cooper, who for a quarter-century ran the Federal Election Commission’s disclosure office.

“This type of free trip not only covers the members’ expenses but provides a rare opportunity for the sponsor to cover the costs of a spouse or family member,” Mr. Cooper wrote recently in his Political MoneyLine blog highlighting the Ireland trip. “For members who are not home that much, the free trip is a great payback to the spouse. The spouse or family member has plenty of time for sightseeing and enjoying the foreign city.”

The disclosure forms show the private organizations shelled out $15,310 for Mr. Larson and his son and $8,875 for Mr. Lucas and his wife. At least two dozen lawmakers also were invited to the event, though not all have filed their disclosure reports.

Shrugging off the sequester

No matter who is paying the tab, there’s little evidence that lawmakers have tamed their travel itineraries in the face of the sequester budget cuts that took effect in March, or facing the very real possibility that the government is headed toward a shutdown at month’s end over the failure to reach a budget deal.

In fact, privately funded trips appear to be on track to grow this year over their 2011 high-water mark. LegiStorm, a database that compiles data on Congress, estimates that lawmakers went on $5.9 million worth of privately funded trips in 2011, and so far in 2013 have taken trips valued at $5.2 million — with most of the August trips still to be reported.

Taxpayer-funded trips are tracking their historical norms, according to a Washington Times analysis of the first nine months of travel records.

In 2011, the House of Representatives spent $3.1 million on official travel overseas. In the first nine months of 2012, House members spent $3.7 million. So far in 2013, members have spent $2.6 million, though that number is expected to rise as more travel reports are filed from the summer recess.

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