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Are American lawmakers rubes who never travel outside the United States? Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, seems to think so.
It isn’t often that comments made by Russia’s foreign minister during an interview with French TV generate enough interest to catch PolitiFact’s eye. But a recent claim by Lavrov -- originally made to the France 24 channel, then repeated in a New York Times dispatch about Russia’s floundering currency -- caught the eye of several PolitiFact readers. In turn, they asked us to fact-check it.
The claim came at about the 15-minute mark in the English-language interview Lavrov gave to France 24’s Marc Perelman on Dec. 16, 2014. Perelman asked Lavrov for his reaction to unanimous votes by the U.S. House and Senate to pass the Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014. That measure authorizes (but stops short of requiring) military assistance for Ukraine as well as significant new sanctions on Russia’s energy sector, according to Bloomberg.
Lavrov dismissed the measure and proceeded to tweak the legislative institutions that passed it.
"Congress is a very special group of people," Lavrov said. "More than 80 percent of them never left the United States. They live in their own walls. So I’m not amazed about this Russophobia which is being displayed by the Congress at the moment."
Lavrov didn’t look like he was joking in the interview, so we’re taking the claim at face value. Here’s what we found. (An inquiry to the Russian Embassy in Washington was not returned.)
Because calling up all 535 members of the House and Senate and asking them about their lifetime travel histories would be prohibitively time-consuming, we figured the fastest way to test Lavrov’s claim would be to look at lawmakers’ records of official travel.
We asked Jock Friedly, founder of the legislative data service LegiStorm, to run some numbers for us. Utilizing his database, Friedly found that no fewer than 412 voting House members and senators in the 113th Congress -- the one that just wrapped up its business this week -- have taken privately financed overseas travel during their congressional career, at least going back to 2000. (See LegiStorm’s whole list here.)
That means that at least 77 percent of Congress’ 535 members (House and Senate combined) have gone overseas solely by counting one type of congressional travel -- namely, trips financed by outside organizations.
The LegiStorm figure doesn’t include official congressional delegations (commonly known as CODELs) that take trips paid for using funds from the federal treasury. We took a quick look through some of the recent CODEL disclosures by the Clerk of the House and found that just in the final six months of 2013, at least 115 House members went on a CODEL. That’s 26 percent of the chamber going overseas just during one quarter of a two-year congressional term. (See the whole list here.)
We cross-checked the two lists and found 20 House members who took a CODEL during that six-month period but had never taken a privately financed overseas trip. So that raised the number of confirmed members of Congress who had gone overseas at least once to 432 out of 535 members, or 81 percent.
In other words, Lavrov got the percentage who had gone overseas almost exactly backwards.
In reality, it’s probably low-balling it to say that 81 percent of lawmakers have made overseas travel. We are confident that the percentage would rise even higher if we had included a longer-term sample of CODELs, if we had counted travel paid by a foreign government (trips that are regulated under the Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act), and if we had counted trips sponsored by lawmakers’ campaigns or political action committees.
"I think it’s likely to be close to 100 percent who have done official travel of some kind overseas," Friedly told PolitiFact.
And of course, none of these numbers touch any foreign travel taken in the lawmakers’ personal lives, either as children or adults.
Lavrov said, "Congress is a very special group of people. More than 80 percent of them never left the United States."
Actually, the data shows that at least 81 percent of members in the recently concluded Congress have taken overseas trips on official business, and the actual percentage is almost certainly higher once all sorts of travel are included, including personal travel completed before being elected to Congress.
We rate his claim Pants on Fire!
France 24, " 'We will survive sanctions,’ says Russian foreign minister," Dec. 16, 2014
New York Times, "Obama Signals Support for New U.S. Sanctions to Pressure Russian Economy," Dec. 16, 2014
Bloomberg, "Congress Passes Tougher Russia Sanctions But Gives Obama Leeway," Dec. 12, 2014
LegiStorm, data compiled for PolitiFact on congressional travel, Dec. 17, 2014
Office of the Clerk of the House, "Foreign Travel Reports" index page, accessed Dec. 17, 2014
House Committee on Ethics, "Travel Paid for by a Foreign Government," accessed Dec. 17, 2014
Email interview with Jock Friedly, founder of LegiStorm, Dec. 17, 2014
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