See the World
The intense scrutiny on Congressional travel in the wake of allegations that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and others accepted trips from lobbyists is likely to have at least one silver lining: Most House Members and Senators will start thinking long and hard about whether a journey is really something that helps inform their policymaking decisions, or whether it is what critics have long derided as “boondoggles.”
There is, however, a hidden danger in the furor over Congressional travel. Yes, too many junkets funded by nonprofits employ an excess of enticements — such as prime opportunities for skiing, suntanning and shopping — to convince lawmakers with already packed schedules that they can break away from Washington or their districts. But travel, particularly in an era of a global economy and a war on terrorism that knows no borders, is essential to helping lawmakers craft their stances on policy. We can think of nothing worse than for House Members and Senators to retreat entirely from interaction with the world. It would be a return to the days when some Members openly proved their provincial bona fides by boasting that they didn’t even possess a valid passport.
Unfortunately, the media frenzy surrounding the sources of funding for travel seems to be having precisely that kind of chilling effect on lawmakers. Scrutiny, to be sure, is justified. As is the case in dealing with lobbyists and accepting campaign contributions, Members of Congress must be prepared to answer for their actions or risk the consequences. We believe, as we always have, that sunshine is the best disinfectant. If, on the other hand, veteran Washington lawyer Jan Baran is right — on Tuesday, he told The Washington Post that his “overall impression” was that Members are “not taking trips for the time being” — then lawmaking will surely suffer.
Certainly, it would be wise for each Congressional office to pull back and conduct a review of the kinds of trips Members and staff are taking and what entities are paying for them. We trust that in addition to amending and clarifying records for past travel, most Members will be vigilant about making sure that past abuses aren’t repeated. But we hope that once Members set their own houses in order, they will not shy away from doing what they must to learn how situations in the rest of the world come to bear on America.
On Tuesday, the House ethics committee convened one of its occasional briefings for Members and staff to help clarify what is and is not permissible. Reports say that the session attracted a larger-than-usual audience. That appears to be one immediate benefit of the travel scandal that is sullying Congress’ good name. Imagine what a fully functioning ethics committee — one that carried with it the backing of each party’s leadership — could do to make sure Congress works overtime to affirm the public’s trust.