Tennessee lawmakers rack up privately paid travel

photo People visit the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

AT A GLANCETennessee House members and their staffs have taken more than 100 privately paid trips since 2008 (cost rounded to nearest dollar):Representative // Trips Cost // • // Steve Cohen: // 21 // $96,607• // Jim Cooper: // 25 // $86,429• // Marsha Blackburn: // 25 // $50,663• // Diane Black*: // 5 // $42,120• // Phil Roe: // 12 // $32,322• // Stephen Fincher*: // 4 // $24,939• // Chuck Fleischmann*: // 3 // $25,574• // John Duncan: // 7 // $22,219• // Scott DesJarlais* : // 4 // $21,563Total: // 106 // $402,436* Elected in 2010Source: U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Clerk

WASHINGTON - Since 2008, outside parties and private interest groups have spent $402,436 on travel for Tennessee's nine U.S. House members and their staffs, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press analysis of 106 trips.

While the total averages to about $45,000 per member and $3,800 per trip, some lawmakers fly more than others on someone else's dime. U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., leads the pack with $96,606 in privately funded travel.

U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican elected in 2010, brings up the rear with $21,563.

The House Ethics Committee must approve such trips, and the Times Free Press found no evidence of any member skirting the committee's stringent disclosure rules. For example, if a corporation bankrolls a trip or a sponsoring organization employs a lobbyist, the trip can't be longer than two days. But nonprofit groups have more leeway.

Lawmakers describe these trips as educational fact-finding missions that broaden their world views, but critics see them as frivolous junkets and a way for interest groups to trade vacations for votes.

"What you're documenting in Tennessee is a nationwide trend," said Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen. "Members of Congress are flying much more frequently on special-interest vacations [than] I could ever dream of. We have to ban these privately sponsored trips altogether."


Along with sending staffers to locales such as Cuba and Costa Rica, Cohen himself has taken trips to Spain, Brazil, Germany, Egypt and Israel. He also has traveled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To justify the $22,000 trip to Africa, a staffer who joined the Memphis Democrat wrote the following to the House Ethics Committee: "Rwanda and the DRC have similar issues in their [countries] as we have in the 9th District, such as high poverty rates, high infant-mortality, high unemployment, etc."

"Our constituency has a real interest in the congressman traveling to Africa," Cohen Chief of Staff Marilyn Dillihay said in an interview. "These trips are packed with substance, meetings all day and night. And with staff, you have to remember, we're in the office going hard all day, every day. This gets us out and allows us to form relationships across the aisle."

Travel records show Cohen's airfare cost $10,000 more than the staffer's even though they were on the same flights. Dillihay said she couldn't account for the discrepancy, adding that CARE Inc., the humanitarian organization that booked the trip, arranged the airfare.

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A March 29 Roll Call article said CARE's "high-level delegation members" are assigned business class for such trips. The organization does not extend the same privilege to staffers.

Tennessee's other Democrat, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, of Nashville, has logged 25 trips totaling about $86,000 since 2008, including lengthy jaunts to Canada, Puerto Rico and Spain.

"I am selective about the meetings I attend, and those I do attend are relevant to my responsibilities in Congress," Cooper said. "For example, I am a senior member of the committee responsible for our nation's defense. As such, I meet regularly with foreign officials and our own senior military commanders."


Ranking first among Republicans is U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, of Brentwood, reporting more than $50,000 in privately paid travel costs since 2008. While she occasionally finances her own travel, records show her involvement on some overnight trips extends to an hourlong speech or panel discussion in places such as Palm Beach, Fla., and Hilton Head Island, S.C.

The influential conservative organizations Club for Growth, Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute have bankrolled many of Blackburn's trips.

According to Club for Growth's "congressional scorecard," the organization has agreed with Blackburn's voting record 92 percent of the time since 2005.

"Approved Congressional travel is a vehicle through which my staff and I can interact with industry leaders to hear firsthand how the rules of the bureaucracy and laws of Congress affect employers and jobs growth in this country," Blackburn said in a statement.

Many times, spouses accompany lawmakers on trips, doubling transportation costs for the company bankrolling the fact-finding mission or speaking engagement.

The American Israel Education Foundation finances annual weeklong trips to Israel for members of Congress. At different times, Reps. DesJarlais, Chuck Fleischmann, Stephen Fincher, Diane Black and Phil Roe have attended. All brought their spouses, and the tab for each couple hovered around $20,000.

Hotels on the 2011 Israel trip, which included Black, DesJarlais, Fincher, Fleischmann and their spouses, cost $346 to $400 per night.

American Israel Education Foundation said it picked the hotels because of "location and affordability," records show.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at 423-280-2025 or ccarroll@timesfreepress.com.