WASHINGTON, Feb. 18 (UPI) -- U.S. congressional staffers took hundreds of foreign government-arranged trips designated as cultural exchanges in a six-year period, an analysis indicated.
An examination of congressional disclosures revealed congressional employees reported taking 803 trips of this type during a six-year period ending in 2011, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
The Post said 21 such trips were disclosed by lawmakers.
Foreign governments have begun sponsoring such excursions for congressional members and their staff, even though ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of gratis trips, the Post said. Lobbyists often arrange the travel, even though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips for fear that the trips could be used to buy favor.
The overseas travel is permitted an exemption Congress included for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges, the Post said.
The Post said the number of trips could be higher because only lawmakers and senior congressional staff members must file travel disclosures. A former senior congressional aide said that lower-level staffers usually were sent on the trips because they seldom had the chance to take official trips paid for by the U.S. government.
China was the biggest sponsor of these trips, with senior staffers reporting more than 200 trips there during the six-year period, the Post's review of 130,000 pages of disclosures collected by the website LegiStorm indicated.
Organizers said the excursions constitute an important way for U.S. government staff members to learn about the world with no taxpayer costs because they include visits to historical and cultural sites to foster international understanding, the Post said.
"We view these trips as being very meaningful and very productive," Richard Quick, who organizes the China-funded trips through the U.S.-Asia Foundation, told the newspaper. "We try and learn more about the history and culture of the country."
Critics, however, characterized the trips as junkets that create a conflict of interest.
"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 watchdog website. "It's clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this."
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