- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Washington is once again hurtling toward a budget crisis, but you couldn’t tell from the travel itineraries of members of Congress.

Take, for instance, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota Democrat, who last month escaped the normally sweltering August in the nation’s capital by darting off to western Canada.

The Canadian government picked up the tab so that Ms. Heitkamp could take what she called an “essential” trip to tour various energy sites in Alberta to talk about issues like oil sands and the TransCanada pipeline (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the trip had been funded by American taxpayers based on information provided by Sen. Heitkamp’s office.)

She was among dozens of lawmakers who used the traditional summer recess in Congress to travel the far reaches of the globe on someone else’s dime.

Some charged their trips to the government as official business related to their committee assignments. Others, like Rep. Frank D. Lucas, Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. John B. Larson, Connecticut Democrat, let special interests pay their way in the name of fact-finding.

Mr. Lucas, Mr. Larson and other lawmakers traveled to Ireland as guests of the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange, two think tanks.

The lawmakers reported that they met with Irish officials to discuss policy, but also took in some of the best of the Emerald Isle’s tourism sites — the Guinness Storehouse, Leinster House, the Irish Parliament, Dublin Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, Newman House and Christ Church Cathedral.

Such trips catch the eye of ethics watchers such as Kent Cooper, who for a quarter-century ran the Federal Election Commission’s disclosure office.

“This type of free trip not only covers the members’ expenses but provides a rare opportunity for the sponsor to cover the costs of a spouse or family member,” Mr. Cooper wrote recently in his Political MoneyLine blog highlighting the Ireland trip. “For members who are not home that much, the free trip is a great payback to the spouse. The spouse or family member has plenty of time for sightseeing and enjoying the foreign city.”

The disclosure forms show the private organizations shelled out $15,310 for Mr. Larson and his son and $8,875 for Mr. Lucas and his wife. At least two dozen lawmakers also were invited to the event, though not all have filed their disclosure reports.

Shrugging off the sequester

No matter who is paying the tab, there’s little evidence that lawmakers have tamed their travel itineraries in the face of the sequester budget cuts that took effect in March, or facing the very real possibility that the government is headed toward a shutdown at month’s end over the failure to reach a budget deal.

In fact, privately funded trips appear to be on track to grow this year over their 2011 high-water mark. LegiStorm, a database that compiles data on Congress, estimates that lawmakers went on $5.9 million worth of privately funded trips in 2011, and so far in 2013 have taken trips valued at $5.2 million — with most of the August trips still to be reported.

Taxpayer-funded trips are tracking their historical norms, according to a Washington Times analysis of the first nine months of travel records.

In 2011, the House of Representatives spent $3.1 million on official travel overseas. In the first nine months of 2012, House members spent $3.7 million. So far in 2013, members have spent $2.6 million, though that number is expected to rise as more travel reports are filed from the summer recess.

One of the unknowns is how much lawmakers are costing the Pentagon when they hop aboard free military flights as part of their trips. Currently, their disclosure reports don’t reflect the actual costs of those flights.

In March, Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, introduced legislation that would require public disclosure of costs each time a member of Congress hitches a ride on a military plane.

“Unless it’s absolutely necessary to get into a war zone or to visit the troops, I don’t think the military should be used as an overseas travel service,” Mr. Jones said.

The Defense Department is not required to disclose the exact costs to taxpayers when it transports lawmakers overseas, an issue that’s drawn fire from fiscal watchdogs.

“The military maintains a specially outfitted VIP fleet of aircraft, stationed at Joint Base Andrews, costing up to $10,000 per hour to operate,” Thomas Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, wrote in a letter sent to Capitol Hill in support of Mr. Jones’ bill. “Members of Congress often take advantage of these military aircraft for overseas travel, even in instances where commercial flights are readily available and more cost-effective.”

The disclosure requirement was eventually passed by the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014 that gives the Pentagon its funding.

“It is my belief that members of Congress should save money whenever possible by using commercial airlines,” Mr. Jones said. “Even if my colleagues disagree with me and continue to travel by military aircraft, I think it is perfectly reasonable for them to let the taxpayers know how much money this practice costs.”

Not all glamour

Not all the trips that lawmakers take, of course, have glamour or glitz.

The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. Bob Corker from Tennessee, recently traveled to Turkey, Iraq and Jordan to discuss ongoing violence in Egypt and Syria. He also met with leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Defenders say such trips overseas can allow congressional leaders to get valuable face-to-face time with their foreign counterparts, learn about different cultures and advocate for American interests abroad.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, traveled to Asia, where they met with officials in China, Mongolia and South Korea. Among the topics of the trip: North Korea, climate change and Chinese cyberpiracy, according to their disclosure report.

Meanwhile, Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, went to Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China. It was his first visit to the region since becoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. He met with senior political leaders and U.S. troops stationed in the region.

In the end, though, voters can still find plenty of examples of travel where sightseeing is clearly part of the agenda.

Democratic Reps. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and Jim McDermott of Washington state accepted a trip to Norway through the Norwegian-American Parliamentary Exchange Program. The trip included a visit to the Arctic Circle as well as a boat tour for “a close-up view of a retreating glacier and unique habitats for cliff-nesting birds,” to look at the impacts of climate change, the U.S. Embassy in Norway reported.

Lawmakers are sensitive, however, to the perception that their jobs entitle them to trips that many of their constituents will never get, and they do their best to justify the appearance issues.

When Ms. Heitkamp was questioned by local reporters about her Canadian trip last month, she insisted to The Dickinson (N.D.) Press that it was “essential to go to Canada so that I could get a firsthand view of the work being done in the oil sands” so she could better support the pending Keystone XL pipeline project.

She went further in a press release she issued about the trip, saying she expected to bring the United States and Canada closer together.

“This trip will allow me to help strengthen those ties,” she said.

Her constituents will get to decide whether Canadian diplomacy, or the allure of Alberta’s cool summer winds, were worth the senator’s time.