WASHINGTON - About a dozen congressional staffers flew business class on a trip to China last summer and stayed at luxury hotels while touring the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and receiving a "briefing on ancient artifacts and dynasties" at the Shanghai Museum.
The all-expenses-paid visit came courtesy of China. The Chinese government hosted a day of meetings with officials in Beijing followed by eight days packed with outings to destinations often frequented by tourists, along with a stop at a missile frigate and two others related to national security - the official theme of the trip.
More and more foreign governments are sponsoring such excursions for lawmakers and their staffs, although an overhaul of ethics rules adopted by Congress five years ago banned them from going on most other types of free trips. This overseas travel is often arranged by lobbyists for foreign governments, even though lobbyists were barred from organizing other types of congressional trips out of concern that the trips could be used to buy favor.
The overseas travel is covered by an exemption Congress granted itself for trips deemed to be cultural exchanges.
A Washington Post examination of congressional disclosures revealed the extent of this congressional travel for the first time, finding that Hill staffers had reported taking 803 such trips in the six years ending in 2011. Lawmakers themselves are increasingly participating, disclosing 21 trips in 2011, more than double the figure in prior years.
The number of congressional trips could be far higher, because only lawmakers and senior congressional staff members are required to disclose the travel. A former senior aide on a congressional committee said that junior staffers were usually sent on the trips because they rarely had the chance to take official trips paid for by the U.S. government.
Some Hill employees have gone on repeated trips to the same country, and others chain them together, traveling directly from one expenses-paid visit to another.
China is by far the biggest sponsor of these trips, with senior staffers reporting more than 200 trips there over the six-year period, according to The Post's review of 130,000 pages of disclosures collected by the Web site LegiStorm. Taiwan accounts for an additional 100 trips.
But other regions of the world are also well represented.
On a trip to Jordan, for instance, congressional staffers stayed at the Four Seasons in Amman, where they received an audience with the king. The group also visited the Dead Sea and the famed mosaics in Madaba and spent two days at the ancient cities of Petra and Jerash, according to an itinerary for the trip.
In Switzerland, staffers took a helicopter ride through the Alps to Monte Bre, hiking up the mountain for coffee at a summit cafe overlooking a lake, according to another itinerary.
Organizers of the trips say they're an important way for U.S. government staff members to learn about the world with no cost to taxpayers. The trips are supposed to include visits to historical and cultural sites, including those frequented by tourists, to foster international understanding.
"We view these trips as being very meaningful and very productive," said Richard Quick, who organizes the China-funded trips through the U.S.-Asia Foundation. "We try and learn more about the history and culture of the country. . . . It's a much broader view."
Detractors say the trips often amount to propaganda junkets that create a blatant conflict of interest for the Hill staff members who take them.
"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 Web site. "It's clear that the countries on the other end get a lot out of this."
The trips highlight inconsistencies in tough ethics rules Congress set for itself. Although registered foreign lobbyists can't buy a $2 cup of coffee for a congressional staffer in Washington, they are allowed to invite, plan and accompany a staffer on a trip costing $10,000 or more. Nor is there any requirement about how much time is spent on work related to Congress.
Congress overhauled the rules for travel after the 2005 scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had paid for lavish trips for several lawmakers and their families before his 2006 guilty plea on fraud and bribery charges. After Democrats won control of Congress in midterm elections, they passed legislation governing the rules for travel funded by organizations that hire lobbyists, requiring pre-approval of trip itineraries and limiting travel to a single day.
For travel sponsored by companies and other private interests, staffers must submit itineraries to House and Senate ethics committees for approval before departing and also make a full accounting of costs after the trip has concluded. The rules continue to tighten: starting in April, lawmakers and staff will have to submit trips for pre-approval even earlier - 30 days beforehand, up from 14.
By contrast, the costs, itineraries and other details for cultural-exchange trips are not disclosed. When costs are voluntarily added to disclosure forms, they typically run about $10,000 for a week-long trip, including first-class or business-class airfare.
More than a dozen countries have employed lobbyists to help strategize or recruit staffers to attend the trips, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the Justice Department.
One foreign lobbyist who helped set up cultural exchanges said the trips were an effective way to make Hill staff sympathetic to the host country's issues in Congress.
"People would come back and they would think a little different," said the lobbyist, who requested anonymity for his client.
Lobbyists for foreign countries use the trips to build relationships with staffers and often contact them about legislative business after the trips are over, public records show. More than 200 times from 2008 to 2010, staffers who went on the foreign trips were contacted by lobbyists for the host country to talk about legislation or issues concerning trade and foreign relations, according to a Post analysis of foreign lobbying data provided by the Sunlight Foundation.
Justice Department records show, for instance, that a lobbyist for Cyprus, Christy Stefadouros, traveled with 14 congressional staffers on a trip to that country in 2009. In the year after the trip, the Sunlight Foundation records show, she contacted her traveling companions 61 times, discussing bilateral relations.
Stefadouros did not respond to a request for comment.
Lobbyists for China, South Korea and Panama each contacted Angela Ellard, a trade expert for Republicans on the House's tax-writing committee, in the years after she took trips to those countries, records show.
"This was official and substantive government work that, among other things, helped lead to the successful passage of trade agreements with both Panama and South Korea," committee spokeswoman Sarah Swinehart said in an e-mailed statement.
In August 2010, about a dozen staffers from both parties set out for a trip to China, organized by the U.S.-Asia Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington with the mission of promoting dialogue between Washington and Beijing.
Joining them on the trip was a lobbyist for United Parcel Service, which is a corporate member of the foundation. "We were on that trip because we have business in China and we are trying to grow our business there," said UPS spokeswoman Kara Ross. "It helps because you make connections when you're over there meeting with people."
Although lobbyists for U.S. companies are banned from accompanying congressional aides on travel paid for by firms and other private interests, those rules are waived for cultural-exchange trips.
The traveling party checked into the Ritz-Carlton in Beijing. On the first day, the staffers held meetings with government officials, according to an itinerary of the trip provided by the foundation and interviews with several participants. That evening, the visitors attended a banquet hosted by the Chinese government, featuring local dishes and frequent toasts with shots of Moutai, a traditional Chinese liquor served in white porcelain bottles.
The next morning, the group visited the sites of two other corporate sponsors of the foundation: a Wal-Mart store and a Microsoft research facility. About 30 local Wal-Mart employees in uniform sang a song for the group and held a banner welcoming them to the store. After lunch, the group went to the Great Wall and received a "briefing on ancient Chinese defense work."
Over the following days, the congressional staffers visited the Forbidden City and the ancient imperial palace in the center of Beijing. They toured the countryside, seeing ethnic-minority villages and an 18th-century pavilion, among other sites, and took a walk behind the largest waterfall in Asia.
In Shanghai, after meeting U.S. consulate and trade officials, the visitors took an evening boat tour along the Bund, a historic area of downtown. The next day, the group got a VIP tour of the Shanghai World Expo, bypassing lines of tourists to visit pavilions sponsored by different countries as well as Coca-Cola, which was a donor to the foundation, and General Motors. The next day, the group toured the historic Yu Yuan gardens and in the afternoon, saw "the development of Shanghai on Nanjing Road," the city's main shopping street.
Helping to lead the group was Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C. He recruited other Hill staffers and served as the point person in meetings with the Chinese.
McDonald has taken at least six trips to China and disclosed 13 trips abroad from 2006 to 2011, more than all but one other Hill staffer, records show. He said the trips have helped him form relationships with staffers and foreign diplomats. The visits have also helped him track China's rapid economic growth firsthand, he said, aiding Coble's role as head of a subcommittee on intellectual property protection.
"We need to be informed," McDonald said in an interview. "As the congressman's chief of staff, I'm his top policy adviser, so it's important to learn about as many issues as I can."
After the 2010 trip was over, most staffers returned to Washington. McDonald flew on to Bangkok to begin a cultural-exchange trip there courtesy of the Thai government.
Quick, who runs the U.S.-Asia Foundation, said excursions to places like Nanjing Road in Shanghai are necessary to give a comprehensive view of the Chinese culture and economy. He noted that the tours don't go to resorts or other purely recreational locales.
Quick said the trips were started at the request of two former senior lawmakers, Sen. Hugh Scott, R-Pa., a minority leader in the Senate for nearly a decade, and Rep. Thomas Morgan, D-Pa., a onetime chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. About 70 Hill employees travel with the foundation annually, on trips with themes such as national defense and intellectual property.
"Our singular goal is to make this a meaningful and productive experience for the staffers," Quick said. "We're very proud of the work that we've done and the programs that we've organized."
Under the ethics rules set by Congress, all funding in support of the cultural-exchange trips must come from foreign governments, in this case China. But the foundation that arranges the trips has its own corporate sponsors, such as Wal-Mart.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said the company funds the U.S.-Asia Foundation to reach congressional staffers. "We look at it as an opportunity to talk about Wal-Mart," Buchanan said.
The foundation is one of four U.S. nonprofit groups that organize similar trips to China. Another one, the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, has donors including FedEx, Hershey and drug-maker Amgen as well as Chinese companies, according to the group's Web site.
General Motors was not a member of the U.S.-Asia Foundation in 2010, when staffers visited the firm's pavilion at the Shanghai expo, but it is today. "Anything we can do to educate lawmakers and staff on how a global business works is worth it," said spokeswoman Heather Rosenker. "It's smart business practice."
When the ethics reform bill passed the House and Senate, the legislation made no mention of foreign-financed cultural-exchange trips, but Democratic leadership inserted a specific exemption for them in the final bill just before passage, according to copies of the legislation.
The State Department, which oversees cultural-exchange trips under a 1961 law called the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act, makes no accounting of who travels under the program or what happens while they are overseas.
State Department officials say restrictions are not put on cultural-exchange trips to other countries because of U.S. government concern that such restrictions might limit other types of exchanges. The department spends about $600 million a year on its cultural-exchange bureau, including funding for academic awards such as Fulbright scholarships for Americans and foreigners. Many other government departments - from the National Park Service to the Office of Government Ethics - run their own international exchange programs for foreigners.
Oversight of exchange trips for congressional staff falls into a bureaucratic no-man's land. Under rules written by Congress, the ethics committees in the House and Senate can only check to make sure that trips are approved by the State Department. A State Department official said that it's up to the congressional ethics offices to review what happens during the travel.
When approving trips sponsored by U.S. companies and other interests, the congressional ethics committees vet itineraries to make sure they don't include entertainment or "recreational activities." By contrast, those appear to be an integral part of cultural-exchange trips, which face no such restrictions.
On a 2011 trip to Thailand, for instance, staffers spent an afternoon at the beach at Hua Hin, a resort town frequented by the Thai royal family. They also had lunch at a winery and visited an elephant preserve.
Most trips to Thailand include a visit to the massage school at Wat Pho and an inexpensive tailor where staffers can buy suits and dresses, said an official in the Thai Embassy's political section.
"Like other countries, we want them to know an overview about Thailand," the official said. "Especially, we become friends so we know each other."