Lax Ethics Enforcement Allows Lawmakers to Hide Gifts of Free Travel

An airplane on a runway at sunset

Lawmakers are failing to disclose thousands of dollars they have accepted for free travel gifted to them by special interests, and the source of the problem appears to be lax ethics enforcement in Congress.  

The Wall Street Journal reported examples of three House members who failed to disclose receiving domestic and international travel valued over $40,000. But these examples may be part of a larger problem: lawmakers representing both major parties and serving in both the House and the Senate are blatantly ignoring disclosure requirements. 

Every voter has the right to know who may be influencing their elected officials. When lavish gifts, like free travel, are given directly to public servants and go undisclosed, voters are deprived of that information.  

Legislators are required to provide certain travel disclosures to the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics and the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Ethics (Ethics Committees) before and after they take a privately sponsored trip. A Campaign Legal Center (CLC) review of these required documents for 2023 revealed that nearly 50% of Senate and House members’ privately funded travel disclosures exclude key information to the level of violating congressional disclosure rules.  

The details of members’ travel are one of the most important public disclosures because, as the House Ethics Committee advises, “travel may be among the most attractive and expensive gifts” a member receives. “[T]hus before accepting travel, a Member, officer, or employee should exercise special care to ensure compliance with the gift rule and other applicable laws, rules, and regulations.” 

These disclosures, when made properly, inform the public of potential conflicts of interest that may arise between the sponsor and attendees of a multi-day trip with a member. However, the Ethics Committees’ failure to enforce their own disclosure rules leaves the public in the dark and has become a widespread, bipartisan problem. Lenient ethics enforcement of the most basic rules fosters a culture of non-compliance with all rules.  

CLC sent letters to both Ethics Committees, urging the two bodies to disclose whether they have approved privately sponsored trips for lawmakers that do not comply with the respective travel regulations of the Senate and House.  

As elected officials whom the public trusts to work in their best interests, members of Congress must be held to the highest ethical standards. Disclosures of travel and other such gifts help to foster trust that members are using their position to serve the people, not capitalizing on their position of power to procure fancy trips for themselves paid for by their wealthy allies.  

The Ethics Committees must enforce the travel disclosure rules to increase transparency and improve public trust.

This blog was written by CLC Legal Intern Erika Sanders