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May 11, 2005

Congress Abroad
Posted by Derek Chollet

Having spent the last week on vacation in Ireland, it has taken me awhile to clear the cobwebs (ok, I really mean the Guinness) out of my head.  But a week out of Washington does wonders and, as always, provides a different perspective on the scandals that fuel so much of what happens here.

No, thank god, I did not hear or mention the name John Bolton once while abroad.  But one name that came up was Tom Delay – as I’ve written elsewhere, the Europeans are completely obsessed by all things Bush, and are intensely interested in all the maneuverings of those around him, especially those from Texas, and those who they see as pulling the strings: the likes of Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and yes, Tom Delay.

Delay’s troubles have been the scandal of the season here in Washington, much to the delight of Congressional Democrats (especially the besieged House Democrats) and progressives everywhere.  The details of the scandal are dizzying – involving Indian casino gambling, Scotland golf getaways, Moscow meetings, and the activities of one of the most infamous Beltway Bandits, Jack Abramoff – and the heart of issue is one of Washington’s oldest and enduring problems: influence peddling.

But the reason I started pondering this is not because I’m thinking about what to do about the House ethics committee debacle or whether or not Delay should go down, but what the unintended effects of all this might be for a responsible Congressional role in foreign policy.

You see, Delay is in trouble (in this scandal at least) because of who funded some trips he and his staff took overseas.  Now these trips have all the trimmings of good old-fashioned boondoggles, but a worry I have is that the effects of this scandal will make legitimate Congressional travel abroad (and by that I mean traveling to meet with foreign leaders, see our troops, attend policy conferences to discuss issues, or see challenges first-hand) harder – and therefore more rare – because everyone will be worried about getting into trouble or getting caught up in some political payback for Delay’s fall.

Having worked on Capitol Hill and having done a bit of official travel both with a Senator and on my own as a staffer, I can tell you that the environment up there is, for the most part, already one of extreme caution when it comes traveling abroad.  For many, the trouble just isn’t worth it.  Some offices even have a blanket policy of not allowing any travel overseas that is paid for by someone else – a think tank, foundation, etc.  But the problem is that other official travel – that paid for by the American taxpayer –is just as unattractive to many members of Congress.  Given the potential for such trips becoming a political liability (especially when members are “in-cycle,” or up for reelection), they just choose to stay at home.

A decade ago, we went through a version of this – remember the Gingrichites coming into Congress bragging about how many of them did not have passports?  This helped create an atmosphere of isolationism in Congress that plagued the Clinton Administration.  There is already evidence that the Delay scandal has created a similar chilling effect on the Hill by making the issue of travel politically toxic again.

A Congress that stays at home is not good for the institution, and it’s not good for our foreign policy.  In fact, at a moment when the world is becoming more interconnected and our challenges abroad becoming more complex, creating a more isolated Congress is just perverse.

So what do we do?  I think that we must seek a bipartisan effort to create some sort of compact regarding legitimate congressional travel.  Part of the problem has been that the rules are riddled with loopholes (which those like Delay appear to have used), and what we need are clearer rules of road to define what is above the board and what is not.  We also need a strong endorsement from current and former Congressional leaders (from the likes of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, John Danforth, Tom Daschle, Al Gore, etc) as well as former Presidents and Secretaries of State about the value of legitimate Congressional travel -- and clearly defining what that is -- and the responsibility members of Congress have to remain engaged and informed abroad.

According to today’s Washington Post, the House leadership is talking of doing some things along these lines – including by implementing the sensible policy of requiring prior ethics committee approval before a trip – but so far they are not including the Democrats in these plans.  This is a huge mistake.  For the good of Congress and the country, this is one issue where we have to demand that our leaders rise above partisanship and do something for the greater long-term good.  Ok, I know, maybe that’s the optimism of my vacation (or the Guinness) talking – but at least we can hope. 


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Kudos to Derek for raising a critical issue. As a former Congressional staffer myself who had the good fortune venture overseas on official travel, I wholeheartedly agree that more Members and staff should be getting beyond the Beltway and visiting Baghdad, Berlin, Beijing and beyond. It is especially important for U.S. diplomacy that representatives of the opposition party (Democrats in the current context) travel abroad, for two reasons: it demonstrates to the world that ours is not a monolithic state, but a pluralistic democracy; and it lend further support and legitimacy to U.S. foreign policy goals which command bipartisan support (i.e., accomplishing our mission in Iraq). One of the many unfortunate aftershocks of the Gingrich revolution in 1994 was the unabashed isolationist sentiments of many Republicans who boasted that they did not own a passport and had no plans to. Such demagagory may score cheap political points back in their districts, but it does a supreme disservice to U.S. national security.

The problem isn't the travel it's the level of luxury associated with the trip. Federal employees have been traveling internationally, (TDY), for decades now. They are given a per diem. The travel office purchases their tickets at special
government rates. Congress critters and Senate Patricians need to start behaving like federal employees, because that is what they are. If they are going to rant about defense spending, the budget, Medicare or social security well the "buck stops here". Saving money on travel helps everyone, there's a war on, at least that is what we are so often told. Elected officials need to start behaving that way.

I'm looking for that data on how many Congress members have passports. Any idea where to look? I've read it somewhere in the past few months but don't remember where.


I'm looking for that data on how many Congress members have passports. Any idea where to look? I've read it somewhere in the past few months but don't remember where.


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