Israel lobby, Aspen Institute Are Biggest Trip Sponsors for Colorado Delegation

Two groups spent more than $100,000 since 2000 to educate members about issues.The pro-Israel lobby has spent more money since 2000 sending the Colorado congressional delegation on trips than any other single group. The American Israel Education Fund, an arm of the lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has spent about $71,600 since 2000 to send Colorado congressmen and staffers to Israel.

Second on the list of active sponsors is the Aspen Institute, which spent $39,000 on 10 trips for Colorado members since 2000.

Members of Congress are allowed to take trips paid for by legislative sponsors as long as those trips are connected to their work in Congress. There’s nothing illegal or unethical about it. In the case of the trips taken by the Colorado delegation, all appear to be closely connected to issues on which the legislator was involved.

All privately funded trips are pre-approved by the  House or Senate ethics committees. Under the House rules, for instance:

“Travel will not be approved if it does not include sufficient officially-connected activities, or if it includes excessive amounts of unscheduled time for opportunities for recreational activities during the official itinerary, even if such activities are engaged in at personal expense.”

The most expensive single trip provided to the delegation was by AIPAC, $22,394 for Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn and his wife Jeanie for a six-day trip to Israel in August, 2007, to “explore the complex military, political and economic issues currently confronting Israel and affecting the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

While the Lamborn trip was the costliest, AIPAC has hosted four other members and two staffers on trips to Israel ranging in cost from $2700 to $14,119. In addition to Lamborn, AIPAC hosted in Israel: Rep. John Salazar, D, $14,000; Rep. Mark Udall, D, $10,500: Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R, $9,600; Rep. Diana DeGette, D, $8,600. John Salazar took his wife Mary Lou; Udall took his wife, Maggie Fox; Musgrave took husband Steve; and DeGette traveled alone.

Udall staffer Alan Salazar and Sen. Wayne Allard staffer Jayson Roehl also went to Israel on AIPAC’s dime, for $3,600 and $2,700, respectively. AIPAC also paid for two domestic trips for the delegation, sending Sen. Ken Salazar and a staffer to Palm Beach, Florida to deliver a speech.

The second most active sponsor of congressional trips for the Colorado delegation since 2000 is the Aspen Institute. The institute is nonpartisan think tank that examines a wide range of issues, ranging from Middle East security to education reform.

The Aspen Institute spent $39,300 on travel for the Colorado delegation, nearly all of it -about $35,000 — to Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette to destinations like Puerto Rico, Ireland, Mexico, Italy and the Czech Republic. Former Republican Rep. Scott McInnis had one trip costing about $4,000 to Florida.

James Spiegelman, the Aspen Institute’s director of communications and public affairs says they pay for travel for both Democratic and Republican members …

“… to discuss with experts a particular issue like nuclear proliferation or education and get them away from their normal workday affairs so that they can really focus on the issues that are being discussed in these meetings.”

Spiegelman says, “We’re a nonpartisan organization. It’s important to have parties talk to each other in a civil, nonpartisan environment. They leave the partisanship outside the door.”

Among the 651 members of Congress whose travel has been tracked by Legistorm since 2000, the Aspen Institute is the second most active sponsor of congressional trips in terms of the number of trips given to all legislators and staff – 855 since 2000 – and it is first in terms of the amount of money spent in that period, $4.8 million. AIPAC ranks eighth in number of trips given – 313 — and second in total trip funding, spending about $2.3 million to all members since 2000.

Disclaimer: Colorado Confidential’s Cara DeGette accompanied her sister, Rep. Diana DeGette, on an Aspen Institute sponsored trip to Ireland on U.S.-Russian relations in 2005.