By Sheena Dooley | Iowa Watchdog
DES MOINES – Want to travel the world at no cost to you? Then get elected to Congress.
Take Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. The Democrat took trips to Croatia, Tunisia, Alberta, Jordan, Mexico, Brazil, New Zealand, Cuba, Belgium, and the Bahamas within the past 12 years. His wife and daughter occasionally accompanied him on the excursions. In all, Harkin took 16 trips at a cost of $93,442.
And then there’s Rep. Steve King, a Republican in Iowa’s 5th District. He and his wife took a nine-day trip to Germany and Russia in 2009 and returned two years later to Germany for another six-day stay. Both trips exceeded $20,000.
King has taken 31 trips at a cost of $135,812 — the most of any Iowa Congressman – since taking office in 2003.
In all, Iowa’s seven members of Congress have taken a combined 71 trips costing $322,466 during the past 12 years, according to Legistorm, a nonpartisan website that has tracked Congressional travel dating since 2000.
The amount paid for by the congressmen for their lodging, travel and food?
Private groups, instead, covered their tabs, according to Legistorm documents. Several groups also donated thousands of dollars in recent years to their campaigns and hired lobbyists to promote their respective causes. At least two of the groups benefited from bills co-sponsored by the representative they took on trips, according to OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks political spending.
Specifically, trips taken by Iowa’s congressional delegation according to LegisStorm.com include:
- King, Iowa’s most well-traveled representative, took multiple trips paid for by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., the Heritage Foundation and the Club for Growth. The Club for Growth, a conservative nonprofit focused on taxation and other economic issues, announced it will back King’s re-election bid this year, according to OpenSecrets.org. He is in a close race against Iowa’s former first lady, Democrat Christie Vilsack, in Iowa’s 4th District. The Club for Growth operates its own Political Action Committee to advocate for lower taxes and limited government, values echoed by King. King’s office did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment on his trips, which ranged in cost from as much as nearly $26,000 to as little as about $1,000.
- Nearly half of Harkin’s 16 trips were paid for by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group, according to its website. The cost of his trips ranged from just more than $100 to as much as nearly $17,800.
- Democratic Representatives Dave Loebsack and Bruce Braley, both elected in 2006 making them Iowa’s newest congressional delegates, took the fewest trips. Braley took one trip in March to Guam, Saipan and the Northern Marina Islands that cost $3,008 and was sponsored by the Greatest Generations Foundation. Loebsack has yet to take a privately funded trip.
- Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell, who represents Iowa’s 3rd District, took 10 trips that cost a total of $22,648 and included destinations such as Havana. One trip was funded by the CME Group Inc.; the Aspen Institute paid for another.
- Republican Rep. Tom Latham took eight trips at a combined cost of $59,199 from 2000 to 2005. His top funders were the CME Group and the Nuclear Energy Institute, which sent him to Rome and Paris. Latham has not taken any privately funded trips since 2005. Latham’s chief of staff and spokesman, James Carstensen, did not respond to requests for comment.
- Sen. Chuck Grassley went on eight trips that totaled $8,357 and included destinations such as Florida, Georgia and New York.
Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation argue the trips allow them to become more educated about policy issues without spending taxpayer dollars. The trips also must be approved by either the House or Senate Ethics Committee, and members of Congress can’t take part in trips arranged by a lobbyist. Lobbyists for groups paying the bill are not allowed to travel with the elected officials, said Kate Cyrul Frischmann, communications director for Harkin.
“Senator Harkin is confident that none of the trips he has taken present a conflict or the appearance of a conflict of interest,” Cyrul Frischmann said.
Others, however, disagree. The groups are mostly nonprofits largely funded by corporations with special interests. Although lobbyists can’t travel with members of Congress, representatives of the corporate sponsors often attend the conferences and events hosted by the nonprofit, putting them in direct contact with lawmakers.
Congress strengthened its rules pertaining to privately funded travel in 2007 when it tightened ethics laws in 2007. The changes prevent members of Congress from taking trips funded by lobbyists or corporations. But the corporations and the lobbyists they hire have found loopholes in the law, which has done little to slow privately funded travel.
Since the law’s inception, Braley, King, Grassley, and Harkin have taken trips worth a combined $159,862, with Harkin and King accounting for most of the cost.
Both Boswell and Latham took trips funded by the CME Group and then later co-sponsored legislation that benefited the major future exchange, which may benefit from new derivatives rules. The two are running against each other in Iowa’s 3rd District after the state lost a seat in House after this year’s redistricting.
Contact Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org