During a trip to Israel this summer, Rep. Pete Olson saw the Holy Basin, toured sites in the Old City and visited recent archaeological excavations in Jerusalem.
The Sugar Land Republican and two dozen other lawmakers also saw the West Bank town of Ramallah and had meetings with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Olson's journey cost more than $7,000, but neither the congressman nor the taxpayers paid the tab.
The visit was among more than 200 privately funded trips taken by Texas members of Congress and their staffs during the last two years. Groups like the American Israel Education Foundation, which flew Olson to Israel, have spent more than $350,000 on such trips, an analysis of congressional disclosure records shows.
Most members of the Texas delegation took privately funded trips across the country for conventions and fact-finding missions — but also to popular foreign destinations, such as Paris, Istanbul and Valencia, Spain.
At least one member of the Texas delegation says they create a negative perception, but most lawmakers say the trips get them out of the Capitol to learn more about foreign policy and the Middle East.
"The world outside of Congress contains significant expertise and knowledge that cannot be found in a hearing room,” said Olson spokeswoman Melissa Kelly. "That information is vital to the decision-making process."
Watchdogs, however, raise concerns about interest groups getting access to elected officials that average voters aren't afforded. In some cases, they say, the source of the private groups' funds is tough to trace.
The most frequent destinations for Texas lawmakers were Baltimore and Cambridge, Md., two favorites of a conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation, and the right-leaning Congressional Institute. Lawmakers made about as many flights to Ankara and Istanbul as they did to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The trips to Turkey were sponsored by the Houston-based Institute of Interfaith Dialog, which says on its Web site that it seeks to reduce stereotypes and prejudices held by members of different faiths.
The state’s two senators found less use for the trips. Sen. John Cornyn sent three staffers on educational trips or staff retreats in 2008 and 2009 paid for by nonprofits like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Cornyn and his wife flew to Beaver Creek, Colorado, for a forum organized by the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
A staffer for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison took a tour of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, took a 10-day trip to Paris in 2008 for an Aspen Institute forum on Islam and U.S. Policy. The forum included meetings between congressman and scholars on Islam and discussions on topics like religious political parties in the Arab world. The 17 attendees were mostly fellow Democrats, although several Republicans on prominent committees also joined the trip.
Doggett said that the Aspen Institute Congressional Program is a bipartisan study program for critical issues affecting U.S. policy.
"Lobbyists are barred both from the meetings and paying for any expenses," Doggett said. "I am pleased to have been among the few selected for these seminars, which have recently offered insight from distinguished scholars and international experts on problems such as terrorism, energy security and climate change."
The Aspen Congressional program receives funding from several foundations like the Carnegie Corporation of New York. No funding is accepted from lobbyists.
New ethics rules passed in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal barred lobbyists from paying for trips or accompanying members on their travels. If an organization employs a registered lobbyist, they can now have only minimal involvement in trip planning.
Congressmen must guarantee that travel is not paid for by lobbyists or foreign entities. And they must file disclosure reports with the ethics committee of their chamber before making the trip.
Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics said the weeklong ski trip paid for by special interests is a thing of the past.
“In previous years you could, as a congressman, have a much easier time going on privately funded trips than is the case now,” Levinthal said.
Now, Levinthal said, organizations that employ registered lobbyists can only pay for trips up to two days long. The lobbyist from the organization can only have minimal involvement
“It effectively prevents lawmakers from having carte blanche when going on these kinds of trips,” he said. "At the end of the day it’s important for constituents of members of Congress to keep an eye on this stuff."
Although ideological or non-profit groups funded some of the most expensive trips, industry associations and private companies frequently paid for congressional travel as well.
In October 2008, during a push by congressional Republicans for expanded domestic drilling, U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, traveled to New Orleans and an offshore drilling facility in the Gulf of Mexico on the dime of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation.
Brady said the trip allowed lawmakers and members of the media to see the advances in technology for extracting oil with a small footprint on the Gulf environment.
"I don’t know if that trip convinced Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi not to bring a bill to the floor," he said of the possibility of legislation continuing a moratorium on offshore drilling. "But it helped us go back and talk to Congress about what exploration really is rather than the myths."
As part of the campaign for more domestic energy production, Brady and other congressmen also made separate trips to Texas biofuel plants.
"All of that was really part of the whole ‘American-made energy’ push," he said.
Seven members of the Texas congressional delegation have not taken any trips paid for by private organizations. One of them, U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Austin, pledged not to take any such trips when he ran for office in 2006.
"Travel paid for by private groups at the very least creates the perception that elected officials answer to lobbyists instead of the people they represent," he said. "This gives Congress a bad name and rightfully so."