Who Pays?

Posted April 1, 2003 at 5:11pm

As longtime Roll Call readers know, we strongly favor foreign travel by Members of Congress. We’ve said so repeatedly over the years. We’ve criticized outsiders who characterize foreign trips as “junkets” and Members who used to brag (we don’t hear this very often anymore) that they didn’t even possess a passport. America is deeply involved in the world, and the world deeply affects America. The more those who make the country’s laws know about the world, the better.

That said, we’re troubled by the extent to which Congressional travel has been “privatized,” with Members’ educational experiences paid for by foreign countries and corporations, as opposed to the U.S. government. The headline on one of our March 26 front-page stories, “Foreign Travel Tab Hits $2.3M,” might have misled some readers into thinking we somehow object to the “tab,” but anyone who read the story would know it raised questions about who was picking up that tab.

As the story reported, the governments of Kuwait and Qatar joined the Islamic Institute in subsidizing lawmakers’ trips to the Persian Gulf to the tune of $130,000. U.S. and foreign companies sponsored $125,000 in travel and accommodations to Turkey and Egypt. On one such trip, part of the money enabling a half-dozen House aides to travel to the region was paid by three corporations vying for multibillion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq after the war — Bechtel International, Washington Group International and Halliburton.

Besides the Mideast, lawmakers and staff accepted more than $1.4 million in travel to Asia in 2002 — including $500,000 in tours to Taiwan sponsored by a business association and $600,000 for trips to Japan, South Korea, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries sponsored either by governments or business groups. Some trips also were paid for by the Aspen Institute and other U.S. foundations.

We’re glad that Members and staff made all these trips. If the choice is between their staying home or going abroad and learning something with expenses paid by a foreign entity or corporation, we’d favor the travel — so long as the amounts involved are disclosed, as they are, and so long as the trips are primarily educational, as we’re sure they are.

But we’d rather they were paid for by the U.S. government, which surely can afford $2.3 million for this purpose. Congress’ most-traveled Member, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), argues that “many Members have found private organizations to be helpful in securing critical meetings that could not be arranged by the State Department or a Congressional committee.” If that’s the case, it’s a poor commentary on these U.S. government institutions — something that Congress ought to correct.