A delegation of U.S. lawmakers meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, center, in Ramallah, West Bank, on Aug. 11. The delegation, sponsored by a pro-Israel lobbying group, was one example of Congress' increasing number of privately funded travel junkets. (Thaer Ganaim / PPO via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Four years after Congress imposed restrictions on travel funded by outside groups, federal lawmakers are frequent fliers again, taking 415 privately funded trips between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30 — a nearly 75 percent jump in the number of trips they took during the same period in 2010, records show.
The value of the trips exceeds $3.1 million, making it the most expensive year of travel since Congress enacted ethics rules in 2007 aimed at clamping down on lobbyist-funded trips, according to a USA Today review of congressional travel records compiled by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine.
Big-ticket items include travel by more than 80 lawmakers to Israel, much of it courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity affiliated with the influential pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The average cost: $18,120.
In August, four lawmakers took a 10-day excursion to South Africa and Botswana, funded by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, a charitable group with ties to several environmental groups.
Accommodations included two nights at South Africa's Shamwari Game Reserve, described on its website as the "pinnacle of private game reserves," with the chance to view elephants and other wildlife during game drives through its nearly 61,800-acre property. Three lawmakers had their wives accompany them.
Ethics rules approved four years ago bar lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights at the expense of corporations, unions and others that employ lobbyists. The changes were prompted by the lobbyist Jack Abramoff's 2006 admission that he provided gifts and luxury trips to lawmakers and other government officials in exchange for official favors. However, the House and Senate imposed few limits on travel funded by nonprofits, which now are funding dozens of lawmaker trips each month.
"These are the travel junkets of yore," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which lobbied for the 2007 restrictions. "It's a recurring situation. You get some good reforms on the books, and after a few years, people start trying to get around them."
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has the biggest tab so far this year for any lawmaker, more than $47,000, according to MoneyLine's data. It includes three trips sponsored by the nonprofit Aspen Institute to San Juan, Puerto Rico; Barcelona, Spain; and Banff, Canada. Topics included energy-security issues and "policy challenges in the Muslim world."
"The meetings were not at taxpayer expense," Cooper said in a statement. "They were working meetings about issues important to the nation."
The price tag on the South Africa and Botswana trips ran as high as $30,000, records show.
The travel to southern Africa gave Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., the chance to learn more about the economic, political and health conditions of the countries, along with conservation programs to help "future decision making on Capitol Hill," Crenshaw's spokeswoman, Barbara Riley, said in a statement.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, "is interested in conservation" and the trip allowed him to see "actual efforts in the field" to protect wildlife and natural resources, his spokesman John Stone said.
Carter, Crenshaw and a third lawmaker, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., were accompanied by their wives on the southern Africa trip. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., also joined the trip, but did not travel with a relative, congressional records show.
Congressional rules allow other relatives to travel with lawmakers. Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., for instance, was joined by his brother, William, during a August trips to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo funded by the global anti-poverty group CARE.
Travel and accommodations for the two men cost the group more than $29,370, according to documents Payne filed with the House.
Payne's aides did not respond to requests for information. Asked about his participation, William Payne, a former New Jersey state lawmaker, told USA TODAY he was not his brother's guest. "I was invited by the CARE organizers to go along with the rest of the delegation. I have a long history of being involved with social issues," he said.
JoDee Winterhof, a senior adviser to CARE who helps organize the tours, had a different account. "When we invite people, we ask whether they'd like to bring a guest," she said. Donald Payne "asked to bring his brother, and that was fine with us."
Winterhof called the travel "tremendously valuable" to lawmakers who are "voting on issues that directly impact people's lives." She said members of Congress spend hours each day traveling to remote sites to visit health clinics, farms and other projects that highlight CARE's work.
"These are not some of the glamorous trips," she said. "These are trips where there's dust on their shoes when the day is done."