– Private groups spent almost $3.7 million to send members of Congress and staff on trips in 2012, a 38 percent decrease from the previous year.

The decline for Minnesota’s congressional delegation was less steep at 16 percent, from $91,930 to $77,600.

Over the two years, then, the bill for sending Minnesota lawmakers and their staff on dozens of trips — to far-flung locales such as Cameroon, China, Costa Rica, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Israel, Malawi, Nigeria and Turkey — totaled close to $170,000.

Lawmakers and the sponsoring groups say that the trips are beneficial and that members face daylong commitments with elected officials and experts. The work is often tied to lawmakers’ committee or caucus work or a pressing issue in their home district. The American Refugee Committee paid roughly $9,000 to send Rep. Keith Ellison and a staff member to Somalia and Kenya in February. Ellison, whose district has the largest Somali immigrant population in North America, met with officials to discuss refugee issues and problems with U.S. money transfers.

Rep. Betty McCollum, co-founder of the Congressional Global Health Caucus, has taken two trips to Africa this year, one financed by Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere Inc. and the other by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Whether it is a focus on HIV/AIDS, child survival, women’s reproductive health issues … the trips have been really valuable,” said Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, approved a $1,600 trip in 2011, paid for by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, for a staff member to study orphanages and adoption processes in Guatemala.

“I see benefits to some congressional travel. If you’re going to regulate a meatpacking plant, it’s probably good to go see one,” said Melanie Sloan, director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group. “On the other hand, when members are just going to a conference in Boca Raton in February or Puerto Rico … then they start looking a little more like junkets.”

According to congressional records, privately financed trips by members of Congress have dropped since ethics rules were adopted in 2007 to limit the influence of lobbyists and more closely monitor travel.

At times, the trips can be controversial. In 2009, the House Ethics Committee forced Ellison to reveal the cost of a trip to Mecca paid for by the Muslim American Society of Minnesota after his office informed the panel that he didn’t travel for business purposes.

Some members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation rarely or never accept privately financed travel. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tim Walz have kept pledges not to accept privately financed trips for themselves or their staffs. During his one term in office, former Rep. Chip Cravaack approved one trip for a staff member, an $877 training trip to Cambridge, Md., for his chief of staff.

The bill for privately financed trips for members of Congress and their staffs likely declined in 2012 because it was an election year, Sloan said. Spending could ramp up again in 2013.

Through March of this year, private groups have already spent $47,000 to send Minnesota’s members of Congress and staffers on trips. McCollum and Ellison’s trips to Africa account for more two-thirds of that total.

“[McCollum] went to the South Sudan, which is not a tourist destination,” said Harper, her chief of staff. “They were in rural areas, deeply impoverished areas. … The days of the junket are really long gone. These are now educational trips that really help members and staff do their jobs.”