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January 17, 2006

Getting the Hill Abroad
Posted by Derek Chollet

A few months ago, when the DeLay-Abramoff scandal first broke, I wrote here with concern about the ramifications that these criminal acts might have on something that is entirely legitimate, and in my view, absolutely necessary – travel overseas by members of Congress or their staffs that is sponsored, organized and paid for by outside groups.

Now before the howls start (again), I don’t mean the Scottish golfing junkets or warm water resort research during the winter months.  I’m talking about the trips to policy conferences, meetings with leaders and analysts, and study tours that hundreds of think tanks and advocacy groups arrange and sponsor for members of Congress and Hill staffers. 

Many – most – of these are perfectly legitimate.  The reason so many turn to these trips is because the alternative – taxpayer-funded official travel – has traditionally been even more politically unpalatable.  In fact, outside of those who work on any of the relevant foreign affairs and security committees, travel paid for officially is almost unthinkable. 

We should all want Congress and their staffs to be more informed about the world and the challenges we face.  At a moment when so many justifiably lament the breakdown of legislative oversight in national security, it would be a mistake to do anything but promote more Congressional travel.  Yet what’s happening now is completely predictable: both Democrats and Republicans are racing to propose legislation that would prohibit all outside-funded travel.

If this were to happen without any remedy—like some kind of new official fund to support travel -- I think this would damage both Congress and American foreign policy generally.

An even more worthwhile idea was floated last weekend by former Colorado Congressman David Skaggs.  He suggests creating a private non-profit group, led by a board of former Secretaries of State and Defense, military and Congressional leaders, that would draft guidelines (with public input through hearings) to define whether a trip served a legitimate purpose or was properly financed.  This organization then would offer to review proposed travel by members or their staffs to judge whether they complied with these standards.  This process would be transparent and voluntary, but if implemented, Skaggs correctly points out that it would soon be a political necessity as officials would be worried about traveling without the good housekeeping stamp of approval.   

Sounds like a very good idea, and perhaps even a project that an existing bipartisan group dedicated to promoting national security, like Partnership for a Secure America, might consider taking on.


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