From the Goucher Quarterly, Fall 2006
With a former White House aide sentenced to 18 months in prison for lying about a now-infamous golf trip to Scotland, and members of Congress in jeopardy of indictment for trading profligate trips for legislative gifts, the periodic furor over congressional travel overseas has reached fever pitch during recent months.
But the issue is much bigger than the particularly egregious examples now coming to light as a result of the Justice Department’s investigation of the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A study by the Center for Public Integrity reveals that over a five-and-a-half-year period, members of Congress and their staff took at least 23,000 privately funded trips with a total estimated value of almost $50 million. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular destination was Paris, but there is no suggestion of a concomitant improvement in French-American amity.
The magnitude of the abuse is outrageous, and some individual cases are particularly severe. The welfare queens of congressional staff travel for this period appear to be a couple: Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to ex-representative Tom DeLay (R-Texas), and her husband David, an executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Between them, according to the study, they accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of industry-funded domestic and foreign journeys. Among their international destinations were Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and-of course-Scotland.
The list of members who took questionable trips includes DeLay himself, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Florida), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), and Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas). Lugar and Green brought their wives along on many of the trips they took, racking up more than $150,000 each in travel over the period covered by the report.
There is obviously a need for reform and regulation here, with ethical considerations paramount and with an eye toward ensuring that the excursions on which lawmakers embark actually serve the public interest. (It is difficult to see, for example, how a congressional golf excursion to St. Andrews does anything of the sort.) But with the new climate of vigilance in American politics, we run the risk that the latest brouhaha over so-called congressional “junkets” will finally produce the result of which many have dreamed: a dramatic cutback, or even a ban, on overseas travel by members of Congress. That would be wrong.
The problem is not that our national lawmakers travel abroad too much, but actually that they travel too little, or for the wrong reasons. Indeed, barely two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate were estimated to hold valid passports in 1998; though Congressional confidentiality practices prevent verification, many Capitol Hill insiders put that figure even lower today. Still fewer members of Congress have foreign-language skills to use when they do find themselves in a non-English-speaking country.
As anyone who has ever been overseas for any reason-business, study, tourism, government or military service-can testify, there is no substitute for the broadening influence of exposure to other cultures and political systems. No matter how economically developed they may or may not be, they may have something to teach us-about health care or literacy, urban housing and transportation, or even the “family values” inherent in the care of older generations.
Often, Americans have a clearer view of their own country when they get to see it from afar. And it is intrinsically valuable for us to gain a sense of how others perceive us, even as we claim to be spreading democracy around the world. If the United States has become dramatically less popular overseas, as some polls would indicate, it would be useful to understand why.
International exposure and experience, however brief, would certainly be valuable for those on Capitol Hill who are making and critiquing our foreign policy. Gone are the days when an assignment to the foreign policy committees in either house was avoided like a curse that might interfere with reelection. Today, knowledge of the world is power. Indeed, one can only imagine how much more responsibly a congressman or senator might cast his or her vote on policy toward Iran, peacekeeping efforts in the Darfur region of Sudan, or trade relations with China or Vietnam, to name just a few areas of contention, after visiting the region in question.
Perhaps it is time for the newly Democratic-controlled Congress to do its own adaptation of what Goucher is doing: to require that every member travel overseas on a fact-finding mission at least once a year-and not just to Paris, London, or Rome. Rather, they should cast the net wide, visiting earthquake damage in Indonesia or Pakistan, recovering war zones in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the scenes of political turbulence in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, not to mention the places where American troops are stationed in Iraq. They could go in groups, as they like to do, and yes, take a qualified staff member or two along. If military planes are available to provide transportation, no problem.
But there is one rub: In order to avoid corruption or any undue influence, the bill for all such congressional travel should be footed by the taxpayers. At an average cost of, say, $8,000 per person per trip, the annual tab for all 535 members to travel once, with a professional staff member going along for every two legislators, would be less than $6.5 million-a bargain, if ever there was one.