Members of Congress and their aides accept millions of dollars in privately sponsored travel each year. While most trips do not violate ethics rules, experts assert that some are used by sponsors to curry favor and to further the interests of corporations and others. These are some often-asked questions about such travel:
What constitutes a privately sponsored congressional trip?
This is a trip taken by a federal lawmaker or staffer that is not financed by the government or by the traveler. Examples of sponsors include corporations, trade associations, universities and nonprofit organizations.
Under what conditions may a member or staffer take such a trip?
Privately funded trips are supposed to be educational or investigative in nature, not subsidized vacations. A trip to Iraq or hurricane-damaged parts of Louisiana would clearly qualify, for example. Giving a speech also is an acceptable reason to take a trip, but, to quote House rules, travel “may not be longer than the time reasonably necessary to accomplish the trip’s officially connected purpose.”
Is any sort of privately sponsored trip forbidden by ethics rules?
No lawmaker or staffer may take a trip paid for by a registered lobbyist, lobbying firm or registered foreign agent.
What are some of the other rules?
No gift of $50 or more (in the form of entertainment or recreation, for example) may be accepted on a trip. No local meals, lodging or transportation — with “local” defined by the House as being within a 35-mile radius of Capitol Hill — are allowed.
Excluding travel time, House domestic trips may not exceed four days; in the Senate, the limit is three days. Both allow foreign trips of up to seven days, excluding travel time.
Lodging, meals and airfare may be accepted, but must be accounted for on a disclosure form due within 30 days of a trip.
Staff travel must be approved in advance by the supervising member or officer. A traveler may take along one guest whose expenses are also covered by the sponsor. Senate rules allow only an accompanying spouse or a child of the traveler as a guest. The House rule was the same until 2005, when it was broadened to allow “one relative,” including a brother, sister or parent.
Are there loopholes to avoid these restrictions?
The House and Senate ethics committees routinely grant waivers for limits on gift amounts, trip lengths and other rules. And although lobbyists and lobbying firms may not pay for trips, they may organize and go on them with the sponsored traveler.
What are the penalties for failing to comply with the rules?
Travel-related matters sometimes are resolved informally — through correcting a disclosure form, for instance, or reimbursing a sponsor. Ethics penalties differ somewhat in the House and Senate, but generally range from a private warning to reprimand, censure and expulsion (or dismissal for staffers).
What are the disclosure requirements?
House and Senate travel disclosure forms differ, but both require the traveler to list basic information about the trip: the dates of travel; the itinerary; the name of the sponsor; and a breakdown of transportation, lodging and meal expenses. However, not all forms are filled out completely.
Where can I find the disclosure forms?
Senate forms are kept in the Senate Office of Public Records, on the second floor of the Hart Senate Office Building; House forms are stored in the House Legislative Resource Center, in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.
Are they available to the public online?
Has Congress ever tightened the rules?
A few notable changes were made in 1995, when the gift limit was lowered and new disclosure requirements were put in place. But there have been no significant reforms since then — such as a ban on all privately sponsored travel or the creation of an independent office to review trips.