Congressional junkets: Another example of waste

Incoming Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid is “leading” a delegation of three other Democrats and two Republicans on a “fact finding” mission to South America this week.

Because of the trip, Reid and the others will miss the funeral of former President Gerald Ford. The others are Robert Bennett, R-Utah; Kent Conrad, D-N.D.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Judd Gregg, R-N.H.; and Ken Salazar, D-Colo.

The trip has generated debate on both liberal and conservative web sites on whether or not the Senators should have cancelled or postponed the trip because of the Ford funeral.

Reid’s spokesmen defend the trip as “necessary” and say the delegation will meet with President Evo Morales of Boliva, President-elect Rafael Correa of Ecuador and President Alan Garcia of Peru.

However, the highlight of the trip, and the reason the Senators are taking their families along on this taxpayer-paid “junket” is a visit to the Machu Picchu Inca ruins, a side trip that will take a full day and where the junketeers will spend more time than with the three heads of states combined.

In fact, the “official” schedule of the “Senator Reid Codel (“Codel” is Congressional shorthand for “Congressional Delegation”) shows that each of the three meetings with the Presidents is an hour or less. The meetings are primarily “meet and greet” photo-opportunity sessions for the leaders of the three countries.

I worked on Capitol Hill from 1981-87, including nearly three years as a staff member of the House Committee on Science & Technology. During that time, I visited England, France, Germany, Sweden, Austria, Israel, Italy, Switzerland and even Lichtenstein as a member of several “Codels.” My wife went with me on two of these trips.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that Congressional “fact finding” trips are nothing more than taxpayer-supported vacations.

The Air Force maintains a full operational wing at Andrews Air Force base to support Congressional travel. Air Force personnel are assigned to Congressional committees and leadership offices as “liaisons” to help plan and arrange all travel, usually on a specially-outfitted Air Force plane built for VIP travel.

In 1985, my wife and I traveled to England, Israel, Italy and Ireland on a “Codel” sponsored by then Congressman James Sheuer of New York that included my boss, New Mexico Congressman Manuel Lujan.

On the week before the flight, an Air Force officer called my wife at home to find out what food we preferred to eat and to determine any special needs. He even wanted to know my favorite brand of Scotch. A State Department officer handled all visa and passport needs, even expediting a passport renewal for my wife.

On the day the flight left, an Air Force car and drive arrived at our home in Arlington to pick up our luggage, then returned later to pick us up and drive us to Andrews Air Force base to catch the plane.

On the flight, meals were cooked to order, while my wife and I played backgammon with Congressman Lujan and his wife. At each stop, we stayed in luxury hotels on a floor set aside for the delegation and had access to a special “Codel” suite with an open bar and food. If we needed to go somewhere, the local embassy arranged a car and driver. When we arrived in each country, the embassy provided an envelope with our “per diem” – cash in local currency for walking around money. The per diem usually ran two-to-three times what a government employee could draw while traveling on “official” business.

In Rome, our wives were taken by limo to the American embassy gift shop where they could buy Italian designer leather goods at less-than-wholesale prices. On the flight home, two of the Air Force jet’s bathrooms were out of service because they were packed to the ceiling with shopping bags from the trip.

We never had to worry about customs. The State Department handled it all. When our flight landed back at Andrews Air Force Base, an Air Force car and driver wanted on the tarmac to whisk us and our booty from the junket home. No customs, no bag checks, no problems. In seven days we visited four countries and spent a lot of time shopping, sightseeing and playing tourist. We had five meetings with officials from those countries that lasted a total of four-and-a-half hours.

This was, and still is, how a Congressional trip functions. The schedule always includes a token meeting or two but most of the schedule is set aside for sightseeing and activities for Congressional spouses and family.

Besides a half-dozen “Codels,” I also returned to Europe and others parts of the world on “Staffdels,” trips that included just me and other staff members of the Committee. On those trips, we flew via commercial airlines, always First Class. On a “Staffdel” to London in 1986, my wife joined me to celebrate New Year’s and so she could shop in the post-Christmas sales at Harrods and other London stores. On a trip to Austria in 1987, three staff members of the Committee, including myself, attended a meeting for an afternoon in Vienna and then spent three days sightseeing before renting a car (at taxpayer expense) and driving to Geneva, stopping along the way for overnight stays in Salzburg and Lichtenstein. We had one meeting with the World Health Organization during our three days in Geneva and then flew to Paris and later to London.

The hypocrisy finally got to me and I left the Committee in 1987. While working for The National Association of Realtors, I helped start the “Campaign for Comprehensive Congressional Reform,” with a group of others who had worked on the Hill and within the political system.

We prepared reform proposals, which included severe restrictions on Congressional travel and a ban on taking family along, but each proposal was voted down by the very members of Congress who benefit so much from the system. In 1995, I contacted the Clerk of the House to try and submit reimbursement for the money spent for my travel while working on Capitol Hill. I was told they had no provisions for such refunds and could not accept my money. So I donated the money to Common Cause and other watchdog groups.

As The Campaign for Our America gears up to launch a new set of campaign and government reform proposals, we intent to look, once again, at Congressional travel as just one set of abuse that allows members of Congress to live large at taxpayer expense.

Like so much that goes on in Washington, it is just the tip of the iceberg.


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Comments

  1. Doris C.

    My, my, so many cynics. I’m quite aware what politicians can be — behold Tom DeLay, but I’m also aware of men like Paul Simon, Dick Lugar, Frank Church. I have written many times to Sen. Durbin and Sen. Obama and had personal conversations with them and am not disappointed in their explanations and responses. You may call me “honey” Old Curmudgeon, but I am probably older than you and see the world as it is, but am not so old that I don’t have a little faith in some of our public servants to try to better our lives and our country, as I try to do myself.

    And would Gerald Ford really want all of this ceremony to go on and on and care whether these men were there? He was, after all, a president, a good man, a common man (in the best sense of the word), not a King. I believe in showing respect and I think he got it.

  2. Commissar Black

    Would Senator Reid be happy if his family, children, grand-children and even great grand-children missed his own funeral because they were going on a vacation? That’s what he and the rest of them are doing with Ford. Shame on them!

  3. Kent Shaw

    Seal has hit the nail on its head. Heck, I’ve often thought of running for the House just to serve one term and take the pension.

    Kent

  4. Kent Shaw

    OOPS! I meant to sign that last note “Kent”. I use my middle name here to avoid confusion with “Doug Thompson”.

    Happy New Year to all.

    Kent

  5. Seal

    I was 8 years old sitting on the corral fence asking some sort of political questions. My 3 uncles and a couple of other guys were there offerring various answers to the “kid.” I can’t remember any of the questions I was asking but I have never forgotten what my uncle Fred, who had been quiet during the Q&A session, finally said that ended all further conversation.

    He said, “Boy, there is only one thing you need to know about polititions. The very first time the are elected they are in hock and mortgaged up to their eyeballs and they owe everyone more money they they could possibly repay from the salary of the position they were elected to serve. But by the end of their first term their debts are paid and they are wealthy. That’s all you ever need to know about politics and polititions.”

    At the time, I thought what he said was a joke but over the years I have found it to be the truth. All polititions are wealthy after they have been in office a few years and their wealth is not justified by their salaries. Why doesn’t someone outside of government accounting ask why? Officially!

  6. Lexie Homewood

    It would be SO simple to take care of these boondoggles with a few rule. No family allowed. No “side trips”. Do what you are ostensibly going on this trip to do, and come home. No shopping–that should be done on a trip on the Congressperson’s own time, and paid for out of his/her own pocket.

    It’s the old, old story. Rank has its privileges.

  7. David Williams

    Mr.Shaw,
    You are absolutely correct that respect must be earned.Whether one earns anothers respect is purely personal and will vary greatly from person to person.I,myself will never have any respect for the currant occupier of the People’s House.

    I’m only saying that the Dems were not so much elected as the Republicans were unelected.The Democratic Leadership is under a microscope and what people perceive will largly determine how successful their early battles will be.Hope you have a grand New Year.
    David Williams

  8. Jim H

    This is bizarre, Doug. There are important issues going on in that hemisphere, you know. Thank to George, the entire region is going red and pink. They hate us too. Don’t you think it’s a good idea that congressional leaders meet some of the people down there, where they are? If Congress can’t make these trips, the only thing they’ll know is what the political machine tells them to.

    This is far from one of those golfing trips that Delay made.

    I’m tired of you, Doug. You’ve got long stories about the old days, and they supposedly show us that you know how things are because of what you saw 20 years ago. You’re lazy, and you say that you’re in the middle, but you always accept any right-wing script.

    As long as they’re working, trips are okay with me. Its a big world. It’s good if our leaders have seen some of it, unlike W.

  9. NoJo

    Let’s get “real”!!!
    Our government from top to bottom, is going the way of ancient ROME, because of a lack of morals, decency, true belief in GOD, plus self-centeredness, lovers of money, in place of lovers of God and
    justice for all mankind!! WE AS A PEOPLE MUST DEMAND “our servants”, IN GOVERNMENT clean up their act immediately!!!!!

  10. They don’t call them the leisure class for nothing.
    I get $850/mo. retirement so I can enjoy their boneheaded trips vicariously. (Frankly, I suspect that they are all pretentious bores.)

  11. Jan B

    I agree with doug. It is not a democrats only issue. The last I read, President Bush is not coming back from his vacation for the weekend memorials. He is too busy cutting brush.

    Then again, he may be angry about the release of Ford’s criticism of the idiotic Iraq war.

    I am sure he has been informed he MUST attend the state funeral.