Members of Congress and their aides have been accepting and taking trips around the world, sponsored and funded by foreign governments.
Washington D.C.-based watchdog Legistorm raised concerns about the Congressional travel/gift policy. It bans gifts from lobbyists, but allows other countries to host U.S. lawmakers and their staffs on foreign soil with little oversight.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D) Tampa helped pass new ethics rules and restrictions on travel after the Jack Abramoff scandal. She said this travel policy that permits other countries to fund travel for U.S. policymakers should also be reviewed and changed, due a relative lack of transparency, and potential for conflict.
"I think that is a loophole that needs to be closed," said Castor. "I'm surprised this loophole exists and I'm going to look into how we close it under the rules of the Congress."
Congressional travel rules currently allow foreign-sponsored travel approved by the U.S. State Department as a cultural exchange.
"And of course, culture can mean a lot of lavish activities," said USF Political Science Professor Dr. Susan MacManus. "They know you get a staffer's ear and show them a good time...they end up making recommendations to sitting Congressmen, and that's how a Congress member votes."
Annual financial disclosure reports list basic details of many of these trips. We found several hundred taken (primarily by congressional staffers) over the past six years.
An aide to Congressman Bill Young took one such trip to Israel. Young said that was at the request of Israel's ambassador, to review missile defense systems at a time when Israel was getting shelled.
Young said he has personally never taken trips funded by outside interests and believes that Congressional travel should be funded by Congress.
Records show a staffer for Senator Marco Rubio and a staffer for U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis also accepted foreign sponsored travel.
Bilirakis' office responded with a statement noting the rationale and benefits of accepting such trips.
"Cultural exchange trips are fact-finding missions specifically related to policy areas being considered or discussed. In this case, they were utilized to gather information to assist the Congressman (Bilirakis) in making informed policy decisions in his role on the Foreign Affairs Committee."