ONBOARD “TRADE AIR” — The ingredients splayed out in the galley of this well-appointed C-40 military jetliner flying from Andrews Air Force Base to Medellín, Colombia, looked like they belonged in the kitchen of a respectable restaurant.
Air Force and Air National Guard crew members chopped red potatoes and sprinkled them with oil and seasonings, and cut up fresh strawberries for a spinach and walnut salad that would accompany perfectly baked salmon filets and key lime pie for dessert.
On this plane, all the seats are first-class. In the middle of the aircraft is a sofa next to a table topped with a bowl of fresh fruit.
This is the world of an official Congressional Delegation trip at 35,000 feet.
Over the weekend, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative sponsored a 48-hour CODEL to Colombia to provide Members a studious and collegial look at one of the most politically charged issues on their legislative plates: whether to approve, or even vote on, a free-trade agreement with Colombia.
The topic has only intensified since the nine Members set out on their journey Friday. On Tuesday, against the wishes of Democratic Congressional leaders, President Bush sent the agreement to Capitol Hill, sparking a
legislative-executive branch showdown and a pitched private-sector lobbying battle.
While the CODEL’s fare may have been exceptional by commercial airline standards, the grueling schedule of back-to-back meetings and official visits made clear this was no junket. A junket would require a round of golf, or at least a full night’s sleep.
“In two days we covered as much as the average person who goes to Colombia for two weeks,” declared Rep. Bob Etheridge (N.C.), one of two Democrats on the trip, at the end of the CODEL. “We’ve been so busy.”
Etheridge, like many of the Members and staffers, spent the five-hour flight to Medellín studying a thick, three-ring binder of briefing materials about the trip.
They also watched a Lifetime miniseries, “The Capture of the Green River Killer,” starring actor Thomas Cavanagh as Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a member of the CODEL who, as a former sheriff, helped capture the notorious serial killer. USTR staffers had asked Reichert to bring along the film, which had aired a week earlier. It was a hit, and others huddled around Reichert’s seat for an impromptu post-film discussion.
The plane ride wasn’t the only travel difference.
In Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, a 10-vehicle motorcade raced through the streets as police on motorbikes zoomed ahead to block traffic at every intersection, honking horns and flailing their arms to warn residents to stay back. Police with machines guns trailed in an open-air truck, keeping watch.
In the urban areas of Medellín and Cartagena, the second stop on the CODEL, children and adults stood along the roads to watch the noisy spectacle pass by. In the coastal town of Cartagena, police in small boats followed the motorcade as it wound its way along the shoreline after a town hall meeting led by President Alvaro Uribe.