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.
CAMPAIGN UPDATE: As of Thursday, we have raised 4 percent of our goal — $1,100 from 33 contributors. My thanks to those who have stepped up to support the cause. We still have a ways to go to reach our goal of $25,000 (an average of $25.00 each from 1,000 readers) but, hopefully, contributions will pick up after the holidays.
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