WASHINGTON, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Four years after imposing restrictions funded by outside groups, the number of junkets taken by U.S. congressional members is increasing, records indicate.
Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, lawmakers took 415 privately funded trips, roughly a 75 percent increase in the number of trips they took during the same period last year, USA Today reported Wednesday.
The value of the trips topped $3.1 million, making 2011 the most expensive travel year since Congress enacted ethics rules in 2007 to restrict lobbyist-funded trips, a USA TODAY review of congressional travel records compiled by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine indicated.
The review indicated more than 80 lawmakers traveled to Israel on a trip underwritten by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charity affiliated with the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The average cost was $18,120.
Four lawmakers went on a 10-day trip to South Africa and Botswana, funded by the International Conservation Caucus Foundation, an organization tied to several environmental groups, USA Today said. The cost ran as high as $30,000.
The rules bar lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights on the dime of corporations, unions and other entities employing lobbyists. However, few limits are imposed on travel funded by non-profits.
"These are the travel junkets of yore," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, which lobbied for the travel restrictions. "It's a recurring situation. You get some good reforms on the books, and after a few years, people start trying to get around them."
So far this year, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., racked up biggest travel tab -- more than $47,000, MoneyLine's data indicated.
"The meetings were not at taxpayer expense," Cooper said in a statement. "They were working meetings about issues important to the nation."