- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 5, 2006

In an environment packed with voter cynicism, exposes about foreign “boondoggles” and legislative approval sinking, you might expect American citizens to hold a rather jaundiced view of congressional travel. Globetrotting the world on the taxpayers’ nickel (or the dime of a “special interest”) probably isn’t a long chapter in the latest edition of “Getting Re-elected for Dummies.” But some recent polling suggests that this jaundiced view of travel reflects more Washington media bias than actual beliefs among American voters. Citizens see some value in educating lawmakers about public policy through foreign travel — despite how the press vilifies these excursions.

We recently asked a national sample of 800 registered voters (Jan. 17-22; margin of error 3.5 percent) if they would rather see their member of Congress “learn about a foreign country by traveling to that country” or “learn about a foreign country by reading books.” Nearly six out of 10 (59 percent) preferred Congress learning about foreign countries through travel. Thirty-four percent chose the more bookish route.

A little closer look behind the numbers reveals women were slightly more inclined to support foreign travel than men (62 percent vs. 56 percent, respectively). Nearly seven out of 10 (69 percent) voters under age 35 supported travel over books, while the preference for foreign travel was slightly lower but still strong at 56 percent among those age 35 and above. Differences among political affiliations were statistically insignificant. Approximately 60 percent of Republicans, independents and Democrats chose travel, while about 35 percent of each said they preferred book learning. (In all cases the percentages don’t add to 100 because a small number did not respond or said they had no opinion.)

Given all the negative news coverage during the past year about congressional travel, ethics and lobbying, these results are rather surprising. A fellow researcher even bet me lunch when I told him we were asking this question, predicting voters would express doubt and cynicism toward congressional foreign travel as a learning tool and choose the “learning through books” option by a large margin. He was wrong and bought me lunch, albeit at a domestic location. But I have to admit the results surprised me too, based on other research I’ve done on voter attitudes toward Congress.

It seems, however, voters see through the media hype about foreign travel. Sure, some trips are boondoggles. But the “bad apple in every bunch” level of collective discernment seems to apply to fruit as well as foreign travel for members of Congress. Most voters see the educational value of “being there” as opposed to just reading about it. Citizens apparently will accept the occasional individual junket in exchange for a collectively better educated legislature. Seems like a pretty rational trade-off.

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