Rep. Erik Paulsen is coming under scrutiny for travel paid for by outside groups that has included members of his family — a practice that is legal, but questionable and due for review.
The issue here is not Paulsen’s travels. Trips that broaden a congressional member’s knowledge are necessary and to be valued. Unless taxpayers want to finance all such travel, some of it will come courtesy of private groups with an interest in funding the trips.
But when elected officials take family members along, concerns rightfully arise about whether the journey is work or pleasure. The fact that privately financed trips do not cost the taxpayers money does not mean there is no cost. The opportunity to bestow an all-expenses-paid trip to an exotic location upon a spouse or children is bound to make any elected official more kindly disposed to the group that foots the bill. The influence gained by repeatedly flying a congressional member to destinations around the globe should not be taken lightly.
Paulsen, a Republican, most recently visited refugee camps in Nairobi, Kenya, looking at U.S. investments in global health issues. Funded by World Vision and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the weeklong trip cost $27,000 for Paulsen and his adult daughter. Reports filed with the House ethics committee show the vast majority of that went to transportation and security expenses. But trips to Rome and Prague carry few security concerns, yet those also came with high price tags. A week in Rome on human trafficking, in which Paulsen was accompanied by his wife, cost $17,000, financed by the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center. A trade trip to Prague by the Paulsens, financed by the same two groups, cost $10,000.
“I only go with reputable organizations,” Paulsen said, “and there has to be one, no cost to taxpayers, and two, absolute value that will make it an informative, decisionmaking trip.” Family, he said, “that’s a judgment call.” Paulsen, who was invited to bring a family member on the Nairobi trip, said he took his daughter because she works with Habitat for Humanity and would gain from the experience. As for the other trips, he said, “I spend a lot of time away from my family and from time to time I have brought a family member.” Paulsen acted within the boundaries of what is legal.
The larger question is whether it should be legal for any congressional member to extend such perks to family. Work is work, and should not smack of vacation. When a group willingly doubles its costs for a trip, it is reasonable to question the expectations. It should be noted that other Minnesota delegation members on recent trips either have traveled alone — as U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer, a Republican, and Keith Ellison, a Democrat, have done — or have sent staffers, as is the practice of GOP U.S. Rep. John Kline and Democratic U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson. Democratic U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, along with U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, have not traveled at outside expense or sent staffers on such trips.
Privately sponsored travel is inherently problematic, because elected officials may be seeing only information that reinforces the sponsor’s point of view. And such travel is growing rapidly. According to the group LegiStorm, private groups financed more than 2,000 trips for congressional members and their staff members at costs of more than $6 million last year. Congress should revisit and tighten the rules guiding congressional travel paid for by outside groups.