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Have congressional seat, will travel

Being in Congress is a grind, but the travel is a nice perk.

Most of the time, the life of a member of Congress is a grind, with days spent racing to and from committee hearings, caucus meetings, and endless fundraising calls. But for a few days out of the year — or more — members counter the slog by partaking in one of the coolest available congressional perks: the chance to travel abroad.

MinnPost tracked down the travel records of each current member of the Minnesota congressional delegation, going back to 2010. Here are the most important takeaways from their globetrotting, in six charts.

1. They’ve been all over the place.

Countries visited by members of the Minnesota delegation since 2010 are highlighted in blue; darker shades of blue indicate more visits. Not pictured on the map: Malta, Bahrain, Singapore, Vatican City (with one visit each) and Cape Verde (with two visits).

From Malta to Myanmar, South Korea to South Sudan, Minnesota’s members of Congress have availed themselves of opportunities to travel. Collectively, they have taken 64 trips to 65 countries.

The delegation has traveled to all inhabited continents except Australia. They’ve visited key U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and Japan, as well as four self-identified communist countries — China, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba. They’ve traveled to troubled, often volatile countries like Somalia and Mali as well as emerging economic powers like the Philippines and Nigeria.

Naturally, they’ve found their ways to warmer climes, but don’t let the jaunts to Mexico and the Dominican Republic fool you: these trips are all business. If there’s any sightseeing at all, it’s usually woven into public appearances and meetings with foreign officials — forget downtime at the beach. The travel itself can be punishing, too: in one 2013 trip, Rep. Erik Paulsen visited nine countries in Africa and Southeast Asia — in eight days.

2. They go to the Middle East and North Africa a lot.

On a regional level, the most common destination for Minnesota’s lawmakers, by far, is the Middle East and North Africa. There are a few reasons for that: for one, official congressional delegations (or CODELs) often visit American troops stationed overseas. Sen. Al Franken, as well as Reps. John Kline, Tim Walz, and Erik Paulsen have all visited Afghanistan. Kline and Rep. Keith Ellison have visited Iraq a combined three times.

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Congressional trips also tend to focus on strategically important relationships for the U.S., so it makes sense that the nations of Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel are familiar territory for the Minnesota delegation: all members except Rep. Collin Peterson have been to at least one of those countries at least once since 2010.

Turkey and Israel receive disproportionate attention, partly due to the willingness of groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Turkish Coalition of America to underwrite congressional travel. Those efforts pay off: more Minnesota members have been to Israel than any other country. Seven out of 10 have gone in the last five years.

Kline — a Marine veteran and a frequent travel partner of Speaker John Boehner — accounts for a good deal of Middle East travel. So does Ellison: as the first Muslim to serve in Congress, and a consistent voice on Africa policy, he’s often tapped as a liaison to Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa. (Eleven of the 21 countries he has visited are Muslim-majority.)

3. Israel and Turkey are top destinations, but Cuba is close behind.

Given the Middle Eastern focus of the delegation — and American foreign policy more broadly — it’s not surprising that three of the top four most-visited countries are in the Middle East. What is likely unique among the Minnesotans, however, is the focus on Cuba. Five members — Sens. Klobuchar and Franken, and Reps. McCollum, Emmer, and Peterson — have gone to Cuba a combined six times. All of that travel has occurred within the last 18 months.

If travel to the island continues apace — and additional congressional trips are said to be in the works — Cuba could easily become Minnesota members’ top international destination by the end of the year.

It’s also worth noting that for some countries, one member can account for a significant chunk of delegation travel. Kline has been to Afghanistan three times, and Ellison has visited Turkey and Kenya three times each.

4. Ellison, Paulsen, and Kline top the frequent flier club.

Not all members travel the same amount: Reps. Ellison, Paulsen, and Kline have logged the most miles, while Reps. Walz and Rick Nolan have tended to stick around the home base.

A variety of factors play into why a member might travel more or less. Serving on a committee like Foreign Affairs or Armed Services often translates into lots of travel abroad. Paulsen, who serves on the Trade Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, naturally travels often to focus on international trade.

Positions in leadership matter, too. Kline, as Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is a top Republican, and has been invited to travel with Speaker Boehner’s CODEL several times.

It’s also worth noting that Emmer has only been in office since January 2015, and Nolan since January 2013 — so take their numbers with a grain of salt compared to the rest of the delegation.

5. Official travel still rules, but private groups are stepping up.

Members of Congress will typically travel abroad in one of two ways: either with a CODEL paid for by taxpayers, or in unofficial delegations backed by private entities. CODELs, as the chart shows, are the most common. They’re usually organized by committee or party leadership to accomplish specific goals — for example, Paulsen and colleagues will travel on a CODEL later in August to west Africa to discuss trade legislation.

These trips aren’t cheap, however. Depending on the duration of the trip, the distance traveled, and the ground security required, expenses can range from a few hundred dollars to over $17,000 per member. In recent years, congressional leaders have encouraged lawmakers to fly commercial  — as opposed to using military transport, which is pricier — and cut costs where appropriate.

But public scrutiny of taxpayer-funded travel is high, and no member wants to get attacked as a high-flying globetrotter come election time. To ease some of that burden, private entities are increasingly organizing congressional travel — and picking up the bill. The Aspen Institute think tank funds lawmaker trips around the globe to highlight various issues; this month, Ellison travels to Tanzania in an Aspen-funded trip to focus on trade, terrorism, and the environment, among other things. AIPAC offers all congressmen the chance to travel to Israel on its dime, and most freshmen congressmen will go there this month.

In rarer circumstances, members will travel officially, but not as part of a CODEL. Klobuchar went to Cuba last week to witness the re-opening of the U.S. embassy there, traveling with a few fellow members of Congress as well as Secretary of State John Kerry and other top diplomats.

6. Paulsen: The Most Traveled Minnesotan

Paulsen, with his 12 trips to 26 countries (Bahrain, Cape Verde, Malta and Vatican City are not shown on the map), easily wins the title Minnesota’s Most Traveled Member of Congress. The map above shows where he’s gotten to since 2010 — and it’s tempting to read his travelogue as a reflection of the U.S. trade agenda of the last five years. He’s hit potential Trans-Pacific Partnership signatories like South Korea and Thailand, major U.S. traders like China and Taiwan, and potential European free trade partners like the Czech Republic. He’s been dispatched to tiny countries like Malta and Vatican City, and the world’s newest country, South Sudan.