- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2006

They considered us right-wing ideologues; we thought they were misguided liberals. But after three days of traversing dusty oil fields, hearing presentations about natural gas extraction, eating barbeque and listening to country music in Kilgore, Texas, all of our perspectives changed.

This is a story about privately funded congressional travel; it’s one you’ll never hear from the cynical policy bimbos who write about lobbying for The Washington Post and the New York Times, or from sanctimonious self-appointed ethics watchdogs.

But it’s a tale congressional reformers should heed. The current ethics jihad risks assassinating something vital to writing strong legislation — and more. It could also annihilate an antidote to today’s partisan bickering and polarization.

All political reforms have unintended consequences, and a complete ban on travel is no exception. Eliminating all trips, especially those focused on education, will force both Republicans and Democrats deeper into their respective partisan encampments and provide more motivation to build bombs aimed at destroying their political enemies.

A little more than 20 years ago, while working as a staffer for a Republican member of Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, I participated in what the media today calls a “junket.” About a dozen staffers, Republicans and Democrats, working on issues related to the deregulation of natural gas, were invited to participate in an educational trip to Texas, sponsored by several energy companies, to learn industry basics. A kind of Energy 101 — how do we find natural gas, extract it from the ground and deliver it to consumers — from “wellhead to burner tip” in industry parlance.

I’ll never forget the hard hat-clad oil field worker, or “roughneck,” who asked us a very legitimate question. “How many of you have ever seen a drill rig, or visited a refinery, or know how much it costs to find enough natural gas to heat your homes or cook your meals?” Sadly, the answer was none. I remember the collective amazement of these Texans that a group of 20- and 30-somethings from Washington, with no firsthand experience with how this industry worked, would be writing the laws that governed how it operated. Good point.

But something else happened as a result of our trip. A subconscious group dynamic developed upon our return to Washington — a kind of legislative X-Factor. The excursion fostered friendships and promoted bonds of trust, understanding and comity that affected the way the committee operated for the rest of the year.

Were there still ongoing policy fights among our principals? All the time. Did we disagree about the best means to reach legislative solutions? You bet. Yet something also changed after our trip. Republicans and Democrats returned each others’ phone calls more regularly. Tension during markups decreased. We still clung firmly to our beliefs, but we released some of the pettiness. Now many of our serious political or policy disputes were punctuated with a little laughter — “too bad you can’t draft amendments as well as you drink beer!” We all took ourselves a little less seriously and respected each other a lot more.

It’s true, not all privately funded congressional travel is justified. Greater disclosure and even some type of prior approval for justified travel seem like reasonable next steps. Yet a complete ban seems like an overreaction. Unfortunately, in the current environment, it’s also understandable.

Labeling every trip a boondoggle is another example of the media criminalizing Congress and fostering an environment of cynicism and misinformation among voters. Regrettably, reputational clear-cutting is also the weapon of choice in the Democrats’ arsenal this election year. Unless and until Republicans get cooperation on a bipartisan travel reform package, the ethics bullies in the media and other self-appointed watchdogs will continue their crusade of distortion and misinformation.

I’m not sure where that roughneck from East Texas is today, but I bet he still thinks it’s crazy to eliminate the opportunity for lawmakers and staff to see firsthand the effects of government actions on American businesses and workers.

Republicans occasionally having a cold beer with Democrats, and listening to Willie Nelson, is still a pretty good way to knock off some of the sharper political edges forged in this city. Democrats should think long and hard about creating an environment that completely eliminates a forum to do so.

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