Five House members — including former 2020 presidential candidate Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — decided to soak up the sun in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar earlier this year on a trip paid for by a trade group, according to a report on Friday.
Instagram photos published by Business Insider showed Swalwell and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) happily posing shirtless while riding camels along the Persian Gulf.
According to the outlet, the $84,621.59 bill for the jaunt was picked up by the US-Qatar Business Council, which describes itself as “dedicated exclusively to enhancing the bilateral business relationship between the US and Qatar.”
Swalwell, a prominent member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Gallego were joined by Reps. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), and Lisa McClain (R-Mich.).
On April 1, the US-Qatar Business Council tweeted a photo of the masked members greeting the country’s monarch, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Another image showed the group in discussion with the country’s prime minister.
The trip wasn’t all serious business. The Instagram photo, apparently posted by Gallego’s then-fiancée, now-wife, Sydney Barron Gallego, showed the couple taking in the sights via camel ride with Swalwell and his spouse Brittany Watts.
“Qatar is a major player in the Middle East. They have immense economic and strategic power,” Correa explained to Insider. “They also house one of the US’s largest military bases, which is critical to regional security. As Qatar continues to expand its regional diplomatic power and natural-gas production, it is in the United States’ interest that we deepen our relationship.”
The three-term House member added that he brought his wife along because he saw the trip as an opportunity “to spend some time together while working on behalf of the American people.”
The paid-for congressional work trip, long a sore spot among good-government types, is making a comeback as the coronavirus pandemic winds down. Insider, citing the nonprofit website LegiStorm, reported that private groups had spent more than $280,000 so far this year on trips by members of Congress or their staff, a far cry from the $2.78 million spent on travel to the same point in 2019.
According to Insider, the vast majority of members or staffers who accept paid-for travel are Republicans. In February of this year, the Conservative Partnership Institute shelled out more than $41,000 for more than two dozen House Republicans to attend a retreat at the Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel, a luxury resort in South Florida. Among those who attended the retreat were right-wing firebrands Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
The eye-popping cost of these trips is likely to expose lawmakers to questions about whether private organizations are paying solely for travel or with an expectation of something more.
Under free travel rules, lawmakers and staff can’t fly privately or accept entertainment, like golf outings or tickets to a sporting event. The trip must be related to their work, though family members can come along. Details of the trip and who accompanied them must be filed with their respective ethics committees and made publicly available.
Now open government advocates and ethics experts are calling for the rules around free travel for members and staffers to be tightened up and certain loopholes closed, like one allowing corporate clients of lobbyists to pay for trips. Another loophole allows lobbyists to donate to nonprofits and think tanks that cover the cost of travel.
“It brings up the question of what are we electing these people to do?” Project on Government Oversight government-affairs manager Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette told Insider. “It is probably not in the mind of the average person who casts a ballot that their representative will spend their time in Miami or LA or New York, schmoozing with national activist and donor types.”