Don’t Throw the Good Travel Out With the Bad

Posted April 5, 2005 at 3:43pm

There are many reasons to despise lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his buddy Michael Scanlon and their friends and cronies who cynically, eagerly and greedily abused an astonishing array of norms of conduct in politics, policymaking and lobbying. But near the top of this list is the abuse of the travel process, which has now embroiled a range of members, from House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), in yet another issue of ethical conduct. [IMGCAP(1)]

The issues swirl around a series of trips that were paid for in questionable ways. For example, there was a 2002 golfing trip to Scotland by Ney that the Congressman’s disclosure forms said was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a think tank. But the center’s attorney denied that it had sponsored or paid for the trip, which may have been funded through an Abramoff nonprofit foundation, the Capital Athletic Foundation, which solicited big contributions from American Indian tribes involved in casino gambling.

Then there was a 2000 golfing trip to Scotland with DeLay, which his disclosure forms also indicate was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research. But The Washington Post has said that the trip was actually paid for by Abramoff, who charged the $70,000 in expenses — not too shabby — to an Abramoff gambling tribe client, the Mississippi Choctaws, and possibly to a gaming company, eLottery. And we could add a trip taken by Mr. DeLay in 1997 to the Northern Marianas Islands, another Abramoff client, which preceded DeLay’s stepping in as the legislative champion for the U.S. commonwealth.

To be sure, it wasn’t just Abramoff who put together these sorts of expeditions. There was the $28,000 trip taken by DeLay, his wife and other lawmakers to South Korea in 2001 paid for by the Korea-U.S. Exchange Council, represented by former DeLay Chief of Staff Ed Buckham, and set up to promote the interests of Kim Seung-youn, chairman of the Korean conglomerate Hanwha Group, which had registered as a foreign agent before the trip and was therefore ineligible to fund it. (DeLay and his colleagues say they were unaware of the designation.)

Congressional travel — or, as most newspaper editors and television producers would call it, junketing — has been a whipping boy for the press since, well, forever. For a long time, its only focus was the use of taxpayer dollars for lavish trips abroad by our elected representatives — an easy way for populist journalists to put themselves on the side of hard-working Americans and against lazy and greedy lawmakers who cavort in five-star hotels while their spouses shop at high-end boutiques.

But in recent years, the attacks have also included trips funded by outside groups without tax dollars, including an array of nonprofits and others. A few trips were junkets. But most were not.

Every time the required disclosure forms come out, journalists jump in to write what are called in the trade “thumbsuckers” — no-brainer stories ridiculing Congressional junketing. In the past couple of decades, Members have turned increasingly inward, with fewer holding passports and more deciding to spend spare moments and recesses in their districts or at least closer to home. Certainly, this lack of interest at seeing the rest of the world has been driven by many factors, but a reluctance to take a bashing for making international trips was an important impetus.

That is unfortunate. A trip to another country changes one forever. The ability to see, feel and experience a different culture, to see and meet with important figures in the country on their home turf and to understand the geography — all of this alters perspectives.

I am just back from 10 days in Cambodia and Vietnam, and I will now read stories about them differently. Indeed, I will now actually read the stories, instead of passing them by, because I have a new perspective on them. That is even more true for Members of Congress. Moreover, international travel has also been one of the few settings in which Members from both sides of the aisle have had time to spend with each other and their spouses, humanizing Congress and creating a small buffer against the partisan rancor.

Almost everything Congress does has implications for the rest of the world, and what the rest of the world does has implications for all of us. Especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, even the most muckraking of journalists have come to acknowledge that in a global economy and a world where even the most seemingly inconsequential country can become a haven for terrorists, travel by Members and staff can actually be beneficial.

Frankly, I don’t much care whether the trips are paid for by taxpayers or outside groups. The public funding in the past 11 years has amounted to $24 million, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which is the tiniest fraction of 1 percent of any single year’s federal budget. As for outside groups, some of the most beneficial trips have been sponsored by the Aspen Institute and other nonprofits.

But the abuse of the process by a few insensitive and greedy individuals inside and outside Congress is going to rekindle the tabloid approach to travel and discourage Members yet again from seeing the rest of the world, being informed by their travels and building constructive relationships with their colleagues. Thanks, Jack, Mike, Ed and Tom.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.