WASHINGTON – Republican U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen and his family members have taken more than $75,000 in free, mostly international travel since 2013, all paid for by outside groups.
Just a few weeks ago, Paulsen took his adult daughter, Cassandra, to Nairobi, Kenya, at a total cost of $27,357 for the week, the tab picked up by World Vision and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The trip was billed as a chance to provide “direct insight on how U.S. investments are working to improve global health.”
It was the single costliest trip a member of Congress has taken this year at the expense of an outside group, according to LegiStorm, a nonpartisan group that compiles information on members of Congress and their staffs.
The travel is legal and allowed by federal ethics rules, but it has drawn criticism from government watchdog groups as these organizations try to gain influence in Washington. Such organizations can pay for the travel of members, their staff and family so long as they don’t employ lobbyists and they report the costs, agendas and details of each trip to the Committee on Ethics.
The rules tightened in light of the scandals of the mid-2000s prominently involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was treating members of Congress to lavish trips.
“As long as these groups have business before Congress, they are using these junkets as peddling influence,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer rights watchdog group. “Once you get them out of D.C. … you can lavish them with all kinds of gifts, luxurious accommodations, great meals, entertainment, and it becomes a very effective means for special interests to endear the members of Congress to their cause.”
Paulsen, who has represented the Third Congressional District since 2009, serves on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes, trade agreements and Social Security.
Prague, Havana, Rome
Last year, Paulsen and his wife, Kelly, went to Prague for a week, a trip paid for by the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center at a cost of more than $10,000. He also went on a four-day trip to Havana, Cuba, last year. In late 2014, Paulsen and his wife also traveled to Rome for a week at a cost of $17,000, paid for by the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center.
In 2013, he brought his daughter on a trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at a cost of more than $15,000 paid by the Aspen Institute Congressional Program. Paulsen was actually a day late to that trip because he had been on another trip to Dublin, Ireland, paid for by the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center. The Ripon Society calls itself “an American centrist Republican public policy organization.”
Paulsen declined to be interviewed for this story.
Drew Griffin, his spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that his boss carefully weighs the merits of each trip.
“His recent travel has focused on the Cuban embargo, the AIDS epidemic and health care issues at refugee camps in the Horn of Africa,” Griffin said. “He has brought one family member a few times, but it’s always in accordance with the House of Representatives ethics rules.”
Members’ travel often relates to the larger work of Congress, but it is not always directly tied to their particular issues or committee assignments.
Paulsen has not signed on to any bills that support lifting the Cuban trade embargo, nor does he currently have any legislation dealing with the AIDS epidemic. According to the agenda, the Dublin trip had a panel discussion about tax policies, which fits with Paulsen’s committee work.
Paulsen has been outspoken on human trafficking and free trade. He is one of 52 cosponsors of a bill that promotes a national power strategy, including renewable energy, in sub-Saharan Africa.
Others accept trips
Paulsen isn’t the only member of Minnesota’s delegation to take such trips.
Republican Rep. Tom Emmer has taken two trips to Cuba. He is the lead House sponsor on a measure lifting the Cuban trade embargo. Emmer also traveled to Ethiopia, at a cost of $10,436, paid for by the Center for U.S. Global Leadership. On all the trips, Emmer traveled alone.
Since 2013, Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison has traveled to Colombia, Tanzania, Turkey and Israel at costs ranging from $1,681 to $6,700 and paid for by Witness for Peace and the Eastern Africa Diaspora Business Council. On these trips, Ellison traveled alone.
Ellison spokesman Brett Morrow said the trips allow him to better serve people in his district, which includes Minneapolis.
Other members, like Republican Rep. John Kline and Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, have not taken a trip in recent years, but have sent staffers to domestic conferences.
Democratic Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar have not gone on a trip furnished by an outside group since 2013, nor have they sent any staffers anywhere at outside expense, according to public records. Same goes for Democratic Rep. Tim Walz.
A source of insight?
Norman Ornstein, a political scientist and resident scholar on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, said he supports congressional travel as a way to help members gain a larger perspective on the issues.
“You’re not going to have a perspective on the refugee crisis and what it actually means,” he said. “If you’re talking about subjects like health care and education, it should inform you. Travel is good.”
But Ornstein cautioned that travel can be abused. “I would want to make sure there is sufficient vetting,” he said.
Watchdog groups have noticed an uptick in congressional travel paid for by outside groups. In 2015, there were 2,177 trips costing about $6.2 million.
Holman, with Public Citizen, particularly cringes when members take trips with family members.
“If it were really work, it would be just the member or the staffer going and getting the job done,” he said.