China Picks Up Tab For Congressional Trips

On Monday it was revealed that an eleven day, all expenses paid, luxury trip to China last summer, along with says in luxury hotels and tours of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, were financed by the Beijing government in China, but they have footed the bill for hundreds of these trips. Only two days were actually spent on national security, which was the official theme of the trip.

Apparently, this is considered legal and is a growing trend in which foreign governments sponsor these kinds of trips.

The Washington Post reports,

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More and more foreign governments are sponsoring such excursions for lawmakers and their staffs, though an overhaul of ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of free trips. This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor.

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The overseas travel is covered by an exemption Congress granted itself for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.

A Washington Post examination of congressional disclosures revealed the extent of this congressional travel for the first time, finding that Hill staffers had reported taking 803 such trips in the six years ending in 2011. Lawmakers themselves are increasingly participating, disclosing 21 trips in 2011, more than double the figure in prior years.

The number of congressional trips could be far higher, because only lawmakers and senior congressional staff members are required to disclose the travel. A former senior aide on a congressional committee said that junior staffers were usually sent on the trips because they rarely had the chance to take official trips paid for by the U.S. government.

According to the Post, 803 overseas trips were reported by congressional staffers in the six years leading up to 2011.

But it isn’t just staffers going on these trips. According to the website Legistorm, lawmakers themselves are going on these trips. This reports indicates that Representative Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) has taken several trips to China, including two that were not disclosed. In the report by Legistorm they confirm:

Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) has taken questionable trips to Asia in the past, blurring the line between personal and public interests, so when he started off the New Year with another trip to China, we took notice. And after poking around, we found two additional trips that Ortiz took to China that were not disclosed with other privately financed travel, highlighting one of several loopholes in congressional travel disclosure rules.

The first public questions about Ortiz’s travel to China came in a little-noticed Corpus Cristi story in 2006. The local newspaper reported that Ortiz and his chief of staff took a total of $48,000 in trips to China funded by Access Asia Corp. After the trips, prosecutors secured plea agreements from two of Access Asia’s principals in a case involving allegations that company officials helped Chinese nationals obtain fraudulent visas and forged documents to allow them to work in the United States.

At the time, an Ortiz spokeswoman denied any knowledge of the illegal scheme and said the congressman’s interest was purely to bring jobs to Ortiz’s district. She specifically mentioned the work he did on behalf of a telecommunications company run by local businessman Bill Sugarek.

What she didn’t mention to the reporter at the time was that Ortiz and his chief of staff had already taken personal financial stakes worth tens of thousands of dollars each in another closely held telecommunications company Sugarek ran, China Optical Communications, which hoped to negotiate the purchase of a telecommunications network in China. In 2008, Roll Call discovered these financial stakes in their personal financial disclosures. Roll Call also noted that Sugarek’s other company, Integrity Communications, paid $20,000 to fly Ortiz and his chief of staff to China. The listed purpose of one trip was an unspecified “trade mission” and the other for unspecified “fact-finding”.

“Lots of things are allowed on these foreign trips that are not allowed on any other kind of trip,” said Jock Friedly, the founder of LegiStorm, a congressional-transparency Web site. “It’s clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this.”

“This was official and substantive government work that, among other things, helped lead to the successful passage of trade agreements with both Panama and South Korea,” committee spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart said in an e-mail.

“We view these trips as being very meaningful and very productive,” said Richard Quick, who organizes the China-funded trips through the U.S.-Asia Foundation. “We try and learn more about the history and culture of the country. . . . It’s a much broader view.”

“The trips highlight inconsistencies in tough ethics rules Congress set for itself,” the Post reports. “Although registered foreign lobbyists can’t buy a $2 cup of coffee for a congressional staffer in Washington, they are allowed to invite, plan and accompany a staffer on a trip costing $10,000 or more.”

Additionally a 2011 Thailand trip where staffers spent an afternoon at the beach. “Most trips to Thailand include a visit to the massage school at Wat Pho and an inexpensive tailor where staffers can buy suits and dresses.” an official in the Thai Embassy’s political section said.

While China is the biggest sponsor of trips like this, Taiwan has paid for at least 100 other trips, but they are not alone. At least 20 other countries paid for trips as well, including Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Jordan, Germany, France, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Qatar and Egypt.

One should wonder exactly what is taking place. Americans should be outraged that their lawmakers are accepting these trips paid for by foreign governments.

So what should be the problem? Simple. Being “lobbied” by the Chinese government or any other government seems to be pretty serious business. Some might even suggest it was a form of bribery. Members of our government should not be having trips paid for by foreign governments. In essence, these staffers and lawmakers are political prostitutes and constitutional adulterers. Perhaps we need to call up our representatives and find out if either they or their staffers have been on these trips and if they have engaged in such, demand they step down and if they won’t, campaign strongly against them.

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