Pelosi Gets Tough on Lawmaker Travel

Posted December 9, 2009 at 6:31pm

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has a message for stir-crazy lawmakers itching to hop government planes for foreign destinations: Cool your jets.

Even as she ponders trekking to Copenhagen next week for the United Nations climate change summit, she is reminding her colleagues that official travel during the days the chamber has scheduled votes is a no-no.

The directive is aimed at enforcing a policy that Pelosi established when Democrats reclaimed the majority in 2007 but has not always been strictly carried out since. And with a legislative pile-up threatening to keep lawmakers at work until the holidays, if not through them, the grounding order is scrambling plans for what is typically a busy season for official international trips.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the ban on trips during votes is established policy. “This has always been the practice: You just don’t travel when there are votes,— he said. “We’re coming up to a time when there are a lot of important votes and at a time like this, of course, you remind people.—

But some lawmakers are apparently finding out for the first time. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said that after learning of the order, he scotched a trip he was trying to arrange for next week. “The Speaker is right — we have a lot of pending business of historical and monumental impact that we need to get done,— Ackerman said. “The problem is we’re hanging out waiting for the Senate to complete its work. It’s inefficient for those of us with responsibilities in international affairs.—

Ackerman said he is now trying to find time in January for the trip, which will take lawmakers to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Belgium.

For Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, waiting until next year isn’t an option. The Gulf Coast lawmaker has made a pre-Christmas tradition of personally delivering hundreds of pounds of shrimp and gumbo to Magnolia State soldiers serving in Iraq.

This year, Taylor’s plans to make the trek over the weekend and return early next week ran into the Speaker’s prohibition. So he approached her on the floor during Tuesday votes and asked for a waiver — a request she is considering, he said. “It’s something the guys have their hopes up for,— Taylor said, adding his constituents wouldn’t care if he missed “renaming a couple post offices.—

The taxpayer-funded Congressional delegation trips, or CODELS, have become an increasingly popular way for lawmakers to see the world in recent years. A July report by the Wall Street Journal found spending on overseas Member travel has jumped 70 percent since 2005, when Congress adopted a ban on privately funded trips in response to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Lawmakers spent about $13 million on the trips last year, up tenfold from 1995, according to the report. The trips take lawmakers everywhere from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to tropical locales such as the Galápagos Islands and Jamaica.

This year alone, despite Pelosi’s ban, a number of lawmakers missed votes on days that they reported international travel, a Roll Call review of Congressional records found. In some cases, lawmakers flew commercial, meaning they never needed the Speaker’s sign-off for travel on military jets. But Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, was on an official trip to Venezuela when he missed votes on March 19. Along with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Delahunt missed another round on June 2, the day he was returning from a two-day jaunt to Honduras.

“We have an obligation to be here for votes,— Delahunt said, “but there are obviously exigent circumstances where a meeting overseas may be of such consequence— that the Speaker waives her rule. “Common sense dictates that if a case can be made, she’s open to review it, but whoever’s asking for a waiver should be ready to make that case.—

For the most part, the absent lawmakers are missing suspension votes on parochial issues. One notable exception: Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who flew to Albania to observe elections there on June 26, missed the nail-biter vote that evening on a sweeping climate change package. Hastings Chief of Staff Lale Mamaux said the lawmaker made the trip in his capacity as co-chairman of the Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency with its own travel budget, meaning the Speaker did not need to sign off on it. She said the trip had been on the books for months and Hastings notified leadership of it a week and a half before the vote.

The Speaker’s office declined to discuss details of a possible Pelosi trip to Copenhagen next week, pending more certainty about the House schedule. “We’ve made it very clear that the priority is finishing the work of the House,— Hammill said.

But Republican lawmakers were talking up what they expect will be a bipartisan delegation that includes GOP climate change skeptics.

The trip, which would be the Speaker’s fourth of the year, is without doubt a high priority for Pelosi, who has staked out addressing climate change as her legacy issue. Of the possibility Pelosi and her delegation could take wing while other lawmakers rearrange their plans on account of her crackdown, a chuckling Ackerman said, “It’s good to be the empress.—