Are jet-setting Congressmen bending the rules?

US Economy

Since the great recession began, many Americans have cut back on travel. But members of Congress are still globe-trotting, and other people are paying their way. The question is, are these lawmakers bending any rules?

Last February, the House of Representatives had just slashed $60 billion in spending, and there were threats of a government shutdown. What did some members of Congress do next?

Thirteen of them jetted off to Puerto Rico to the Intercontinental San Juan Resort and Casino for a forum on energy security. Most took spouses or children. All expenses were paid by a private non-profit called the Aspen Institute.

According to a new report out Thursday, members of Congress took 1,600 educational trips like that one in 2011 -- all sponsored by private non-profits and foundations. It raises lots of questions about why they're taking so many trips, and who benefits from them.

Read the report

Jock Friedly, president of Legistorm, the public interest group that compiled the report, says that all told, those trips cost $5.8 million last year. "When these private interests are taking members of Congress and their staff on these trips, they are definitely showing only one side of the story."

Friedly says it violates the spirit of reforms made in 2007, after Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff got caught bribing officials with lavish trips. Now, lobbyists are banned from paying for extended travel. But groups that don't lobby can still fund trips.

"Whether that's overseas in Afghanistan, or if that's overseas seeing some new technology that's going to help us, they should be involved in it," said Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy at the Center for Association Leadership. Clarke represents many groups that pay for congressional travel.

The Aspen Institute -- which sponsored the Puerto Rico forum, and has spent half a million dollars on congressional trips to Vienna, Canada, and Barcelona - told CBS News it educates members of Congress, helps build relationships and civil discourse, and accepts no corporate or special interest funding. But unlike the Aspen Institute, foundations and other groups that do have corporate and lobbyist ties are paying for some trips.

"Lobbyists founded the foundation. They sit on the board of the foundation. But because the foundation itself does not lobby," Friedly said, "it's allowed."

Is that a distinction without a difference?

"It could be to some people, yes." Friedly said.

Watch Attkisson's previous report on congressional travel.

As an example, Friedly points to the group that broke the all-time record for spending in a single year: The American Israel Education Foundation, which paid $2 million for 145 trips to Israel. They don't lobby, but they share offices, a phone number and public relations person with a giant lobby called The American Israel Public Affairs Committee. When CBS News asked them about all those trips, the foundation said no government money funds the congressional trips, and diverse views are presents.

When confronted with the fact that groups that lobby and corporations are setting up foundations that in turn pay for congressional travel -- a situation critics say skirts the intent of the rules -- Clarke said, "I'm not going to defend that practice."

"I would say that's up to, it seems like it is what the law allows. If that's not what Congress' intent is they should review their processes."

All types of privately-funded congressional travel were up 75 percent in 2011 from the year before. According to the government, the seven most frequent flyers are all Democrats. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., led the way with 10 privately-funded trips.

Winning the distinction of the single most expensive trip is Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. He and his wife got a 10-day trip to South Africa and Botswana. The International Conservation Caucus Foundation picked up the $30,000 tab.

And the biggest total bill goes to Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. His six privately-funded trips included Barcelona and India, and totaled more than $47,000. Carter told CBS News the Africa trip was so expensive because he had to fly from Afghanistan, where he was on a work trip. The other members we spoke to assured us the trips were educational and in full compliance with ethics rules.

Watch Attkisson's full report in the video above.

  • Sharyl Attkisson
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.