See the world! Join Congress


airplaneYesterday, the Washington Post reported on the “Run for America” consulting firm that is working via social media sites like LinkedIn to persuade millennials to run for Congress.  The firm touted some of the perks of being a member of Congress including “paid vacation.”  The Post pointed out that they failed to mention the free overseas luxury vacations that many members of Congress have enjoyed.  This caused Alpha News to take a look at Minnesota’s House members and their travel habits.

There are three main types of Congressional travel; trips funded by the taxpayers for a Congress member traveling back and forth between a home district and Washington D.C., trips funded by the taxpayer that are taken as a part of a Congress member’s role serving on a committee, and privately-funded educational trips paid by special interest groups.

Here’s how private organizations spent on travel for Minnesota House members per LegiStorm since 2000:

5th term Rep Tim Walz sticks out because neither he, nor his staff, have taken a trip funded by a special-interest group since being elected in 2006.  5th term Rep Keith Ellison tops the list and takes frequent trips paid for by ABC News.  4th term Rep Erik Paulsen edges out 8th term Rep Betty McCollum for 2nd place.

Not only do the politicians take these trips, their staff members do as well.  Rep Tom Emmer’s Chief-of-staff, David Fitzsimmons, traveled to Turkey in late May to see sites and learn about the country’s politics and culture.  Rep Betty McCollum’s legislative director, Jenn Holcomb, took an $8,020 trip to Nepal last December to discuss “gender, maternal and child care health initiatives in Nepal.”

Here’s the total of all privately-funded educational trips (including staff) approved by Minnesota House members since 2000:

Rep McCollum and 13th term Rep Collin Peterson are in the top spots for overall Congressional travel costs paid for by private groups.

Congress members can also bring a guest along with them on these privately-funded trips.  Rep Erik Paulsen has had special interest groups pay for his wife or daughter to accompany him to Israel, Ethiopia, and Rome.  Rep Rick Nolan brought his wife along for a week-long trip to Israel.  While on these trips, House members are also able to accept gifts from foreign government representatives– without disclosing them– as long as they are valued at $375 or less.  That covers a lot of meals and other travel expenses and it’s a very generous amount considering Congress’s crackdown on gifts in other industries, such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare.  The Affordable Care Act, for example, limits the amount a drug rep can pay for a doctor’s lunch to $10 or up to $100 a year.

The educational trips highlighted above about only show part of the Congressional travel picture.   Those trips not reported include ones:  (from LegiStorm)

  • paid from taxpayer allowances provided to members for official office expenditures
  • paid for by the U.S. government, or a state or local government in the United States
  • paid for by foreign governments
  • paid for by elected representatives or staff for campaign purposes
  • paid for by personal friends

Rep Emmer’s widely-touted trip in March to commemorate civil rights events in Selma, Alabama has not been filed with the clerk’s office, so it was presumably paid for via one of the ways described above.

Citizens are able to lookup taxpayer-funded overseas committee travel.  Alpha News looked at the Office of the Clerk records since January 1, 2013 and found that Reps Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, and Rick Nolan took no tax-funded overseas trips during that period.  Of the remaining House members, here’s the travel breakdown:

  • Rep Tim Walz, 1 trip to the Phillipines for 2 days
  • Rep Tom Emmer, 1 trip to Guantanamo Bay Cuba for 1 day
  • Rep Collin Peterson, 2 trips, a trip to Panama for 4 days and a trip to Cuba & Haiti for 5 days
  • Rep John Kline, 3 trips, a trip to the Middle East & Spain for 1 week, a trip to Vietnam & Singapore for 5 days, and a trip the Middle East for 1 week
  • Rep Erik Paulsen, 5 trips, 1 trip to Belgium & England for 4 days, a trip to Tunisia, Ukraine, Germany, & France for 1 week, a trip to Ethiopia & Rwanda for 3 days, a trip to Guam, Thailand, Sudan & Ethiopia for 1 week, and a trip the UAE & Afghanistan for 5 days

Traveling back and forth from Washington D.C. to Minnesota weekly comprises the bulk of Congressional travel and although tedious, it does have one big perk. If a Minnesota House member took this trip once per week for a year, they’d accumulate enough frequent flier miles for two tickets anywhere in the Continental U.S.  Add to this the overseas travel funded by private organizations as well as committee travel funded by the taxpayer and most members could schedule some very nice annual vacations.

Both Congress members and their staff benefit from frequent flier miles accumulated which can easily finance personal leisure travel.  The IRS has spent years trying to tax frequent traveler programs that American taxpayers use and last fall Democrat Rep Alan Grayson asked the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General to investigate airline frequent flyer programs for unfair business practices.  A Washington-ordered year-long audit of the airlines is currently underway.   Meanwhile, Congress members rack up the points which never have to be disclosed to the public.

As a Senator back in 2005, Governor Mark Dayton advocated restricting Congress’s frequent flier mile usage for government-travel only, but there’s been no reform on the issue.

It’s unclear why some members of the House delegation from Minnesota choose to travel more than others, whether it be publicly or privately-funded.  But one thing’s for certain:  if you’re looking to travel more and see the world, consider a run for Congress.