Special interest groups spent more than $135,700 on travel for members of Congress and their staff during the August recess, according to official documents reviewed by Insider.
The trips give business leaders a chance to both hobnob with and influence lawmakers, as well as their top staff who are tasked with writing legislation. This comes as House Democrats are working on a $3.5 trillion spending plan that is expected to set new clean energy goals.
On one of the trips, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association partnered up with 15 biofuel groups – including the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Soybean Association – to spend $14,362.60 for 13 congressional staffers to attend the Annual Biofuels Science and Sustainability Tour in Iowa. The trip included a dinner at the Iowa State Fair and visits to major cities in the state.
Most of these trips touched on other issues that have been at the top of Congress' agenda.
For instance, the Foundation for Rural Service spent $18,932.94 to send 11 congressional staffers on a trip to Montana where they met with broadband companies and learned about the difficulties people in rural areas have in accessing the Internet. Congress is set to invest $65 billion in improving broadband as part of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.
On another trip, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, a trade group, spent $9,754.82 to send four Republican staffers and one Democratic staffer to Las Vegas to learn about telehealth. The staffers attended HIMSS' annual conference and stayed at the Mirage Hotel, documents show.
Telehealth technology allows doctors to meet with patients over phone or video. The method became more popular during the pandemic and Congress is considering making it more widely available, which would provide a windfall for the industry.
The most expensive trip in August took three GOP House members abroad to Kyiv, Ukraine, for a price tag of $46,933.94. Rep. Barry Moore of Alabama and Reps. Troy Nehls and Tony Gonzales of Texas stayed at the Opera Hotel, meeting with business and cultural leaders.
The Humpty Dumpty Institute – an organization that pays for members of Congress to travel around the world – and the American Charity Fund for Helping Children of Pridnestrovie and Moldova Inc. paid for the trip.
Special interest-funded trips are controversial
Proponents of privately funded travel say it gives lawmakers and their staff crucial opportunities to gather information for policymaking, all without spending taxpayer money. But open government groups fear too many loopholes exist that give special interests a disproportionate amount of influence on Congress, and blur the line between official duties and vacations.
For example, one trip earlier this year included an $84,000 trip to Qatar, where Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell of California and Ruben Gallego of Arizona took a break from their official duties to ride camels on the beach with their wives. It was paid for by the US-Qatar Business Council.
The latest round of trips mark an acceleration since July 9, when Insider reported that 11 special interest groups had paid for privately funded travel so far in 2021.
At least 277 members of Congress or their staff have traveled on private groups' dime in 2021. A total of 249 of the travelers were Republicans, according to an Insider review of the disclosures published on Legistorm, a website that tracks travel and other activity in Congress.
But even this is down from pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, private groups spent millions of dollars on congressional travel.