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Eric Swalwell posed shirtless during a lavishly compensated trip to Qatar.

Five House members — including former 2020 presidential candidate Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) — decided earlier this year to soak up the sun in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar on a trip paid for by a trade group, according to a report on Friday.

Swalwell and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) posed shirtless in Instagram photos published by Business Insider while riding camels along the Persian Gulf.

According to the outlet, the US-Qatar Business Council paid the $84,621.59 bill for the trip, which it describes as "dedicated exclusively to enhancing the bilateral business relationship between the US and Qatar."

Rep. Eric Swalwell was photographed riding a camel during a trip to the Middle East.
Rep. Eric Swalwell was photographed riding a camel during a trip to the Middle East.

Swalwell, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, was joined by Representatives Luis Correa (D-Calif. ), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif. ), and Lisa McClain (D-Calif). (R-Mich.).

The US-Qatar Business Council tweeted a photo of the masked members greeting Qatar's monarch, Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, on April 1. Another photograph depicted the group meeting with the country's prime minister.

The trip was not entirely serious. The Instagram photo, which appears to have been shared by Gallego's then-fiancée, now-wife, Sydney Barron Gallego, showed the couple taking in the sights on a camel ride alongside Swalwell and his wife Brittany Watts.

“Qatar is a significant force in the Middle East. They wield enormous economic and strategic clout,” Correa told Insider. “They also contain one of the largest military bases in the United States, which is critical for regional security. As Qatar's regional diplomatic influence and natural gas production continue to grow, it is in the US's interest to strengthen our relationship.”

The three-term House member added that he brought his wife along as a way to "spend some time together while working for the American people."

The paid congressional work trip, which has long been a source of contention among proponents of good government, is making a comeback as the coronavirus pandemic winds down. According to Insider, citing the nonprofit website LegiStorm, private groups have spent more than $280,000 on trips by members of Congress or their staff thus far this year, a far cry from the $2.78 million spent on travel to this point last year.

Sydney Barron Gallego shared a photo of several House members on the trip.
Sydney Barron Gallego shared a photo of several House members on the trip.

According to Insider, the overwhelming majority of members and staffers who accept compensated travel are Republicans. The Conservative Partnership Institute spent more than $41,000 in February to host a retreat for more than two dozen House Republicans at the Coral Gables Biltmore Hotel, a luxury resort in South Florida. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Jim Jordan of Ohio, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia were among those who attended the retreat.

The exorbitant costs of these trips are likely to raise questions about whether private organizations are paying purely for travel or with an expectation of more.

According to reports, the trip was funded by the US-Qatar Business Council.
According to reports, the trip was funded by the US-Qatar Business Council.

Legislators and staff are not permitted to fly privately or accept entertainment, such as golf outings or tickets to a sporting event, under the free travel rules. The trip must be work-related, though family members may accompany them. The trip's itinerary and the individuals who accompanied them must be filed with their respective ethics committees and made public.

Now, advocates for open government and ethics experts are calling for tightening the rules governing free travel for members and staffers and closing loopholes, such as one that allows corporate clients of lobbyists to pay for trips. Another loophole allows lobbyists to make travel-related donations to nonprofits and think tanks.

“It begs the question, for what purpose are we electing these people?” According to Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs manager for the Project on Government Oversight. “It is unlikely that the average voter believes their representative will spend their time schmoozing with national activist and donor types in Miami, Los Angeles, or New York.”

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