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Below is a condensed version of this topic; for complete guidance please refer to the House Ethics Manual, Chapter 3 on travel.
The basic laws and rules on gifts from foreign governments are explained in Chapter 2 on gifts. As is detailed there, the Constitution prohibits federal government officials from accepting any gift from a foreign government without the consent of Congress, and Congress has consented to the acceptance of certain gifts from foreign governments – including travel in limited circumstances – in two enactments: the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (“FGDA”)22 and the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (“MECEA”).23 A Member, officer, or employee may accept travel expenses from a unit of foreign government only under one of these two statutory grants of authority.
Members and staff may be offered expenses from private organizations, unaffiliated with any government, for foreign travel. As discussed previously, the ability to accept such expenses is subject to the gift rule limitations, including the requirement for pre-approval. While on such travel, a foreign government may offer to pay for the in-country travel expenses of a Member or staff person. Such travel may be acceptable under the FGDA.24 However, when FGDA travel is taken in connection with a trip that is otherwise paid for with funds from a private source that does not retain or employ registered lobbyists or agents of a foreign principal (or from an institution of higher education), the trip is subject to the seven-day limit.
In addition, Members and staff may accept travel to a foreign country from a foreign government that participates in a MECEA program. Travel authorized under MECEA is not subject to the time limits that apply to officially-connected travel that is paid for by a private source.
Under the FGDA, any travel paid for by a foreign government must take place totally outside of the United States, must be consistent with the interests of the United States, and must be permitted under FGDA regulations issued by the Standards Committee.25 The intent of this provision, as noted in the Committee’s regulations (§ 6(e)), is to allow an individual who is already overseas (as on a CODEL or third-party sponsored fact-finding trip) to take advantage of fact-finding opportunities offered by the host country. Therefore, under the FGDA, the Member or employee may notaccept expenses for transportation from the United States to the foreign destination or back home. This rule may not be circumvented by having a foreign government pay for transportation to or from a point just outside the United States border.
The regulations issued by the Standards Committee under the FGDA state that any travel paid for by a foreign government must relate “directly to the official duties of the Member, officer or employee.”26 The regulations also allow the acceptance of travel expenses by an accompanying spouse or dependent. Travel or expenses “may not be accepted merely for the personal benefit, pleasure, enjoyment or financial enrichment of the individual or individuals involved.”27 The FGDA and the Committee’s implementing regulations also cover gifts from “quasi-governmental” organizations closely affiliated with, or funded by, a foreign government, as well as any international or multinational organizations with membership composed of foreign governments.
A gift of travel permitted under the FGDA and accepted by a Member or employee must be disclosed within 30 days after leaving the host country.28 The Committee provides a form for this purpose. Copies of the form are available on the Committee’s website. Under the Committee’s foreign gifts regulations, the disclosure forms filed by Members and staff are publicly available at the Committee office, and their contents are published in the Federal Register on an annual basis.29 Such travel need not be reported on the annual Financial Disclosure Statement of the traveler.
MECEA authorizes the Secretary of State to approve cultural exchange programs that finance “visits and interchanges between the United States and other countries of leaders, experts in fields of specialized knowledge or skill, and other influential or distinguished persons . . . .”30 The Committee understands that approval of a MECEA program will be reflected in a letter from the State Department (or the U.S. Information Agency, its statutory predecessor) to a representative of the foreign government, and that the Department maintains a list of the approved programs. The Committee also keeps a list of the approved programs on file.
Members and employees of the House may accept travel expenses from a foreign government in order to participate in an approved MECEA program.31 Expenses for MECEA trips are not considered gifts, either for the purposes of the House gift rule or the FGDA. Under MECEA, however, the traveling Member or employee may not accept travel expenses for a spouse or family member.32 All travel expenses in a MECEA trip are to be paid by the sponsoring foreign government, and none of the trip expenses may be paid by any private source.
It is the responsibility of a Member or staff person who accepts an invitation to travel to a foreign country to confirm that the expenses for travel to and from the United States are not paid for by a foreign government, unless the trip is consistent with an approved MECEA program. Accordingly, when one is invited on a trip that the sponsoring organization describes as permissible under a MECEA program, it is advisable for the invitee to ask that organization for a copy of the letter from the State Department approving the program. In addition, the Committee understands that the Department will, upon request, review specific trips and advise whether a trip is consistent with an established MECEA program. Such advice can be requested by either the sponsoring organization or an invitee, and obtaining such advice from the Department is the best way to ensure compliance with the statute.
A MECEA trip is not subject to the time limits applicable to officially-connected travel paid for by a private source, or to the requirements for pre-travel Committee approval following private sponsor certification. Nor should the trip be reported on a Member/Officer or Employee Travel Disclosure Form (those forms are filed for privately funded travel only), or on an FGDA form. However, Members, officers, and employees who are required to file an annual Financial Disclosure Statement must report any MECEA trip in which they participated on Schedule VII of that form. The foreign governmental entity that paid for the travel should be identified as the “source” of the travel in Schedule VII, and the filer also should note parenthetically that it was a MECEA trip.
24 In-country foreign travel may also be permissible under the FGDA when a Member or staff person is already in the foreign country while on official travel paid for by House or with other appropriated funds.
25 See Regulations for the Acceptance of Decorations and Gifts (Including Travel or Expenses for Travel, by Members, Officers, and Employees of the House of Representatives) from Foreign Governments (hereinafter “FGDA Regulations”) (reprinted in the appendices of this Manual).