FOR decades, American diplomats, especially those in great tourist spots, have had to drop everything to cater to the whims of visiting congressmen.
They have endured weekends lost to squiring congressional spouses on shopping sprees; work days and nights acting as tour guides to museums and hot spots; and hours on end spent staffing congressional hospitality suites in hotels, only to have those congressmen return home to vote against the State Department budget. Often diplomats' spouses, who are not government employees and who receive no pay for their services, are dragooned into helping out.
But for some foreign service officers, the recent spate of government shutdowns was the last straw. They have had it. Several of them recently shared documents with the Associated Press detailing what they said were some of the more-egregious recent examples:
Sen. Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio and a delegation recently landed in Peru, fueled up, and returned home without leaving the airport, leaving the embassy with a canceled reception for local movers and shakers and weeks lost in preparation.
Another delegation to Peru, led by Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, had the embassy scrambling to get "real meetings and real field trips" after the US press started asking questions about the trip.
The consulate general in Istanbul had to set up separate hospitality rooms in the same hotel for delegations led by Reps. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri and Harold Rogers (R) of Kentucky.
A delegation headed by Rep. Doug Bereuter (R) of Nebraska, supposed to be visiting Naples, Italy, arranged for a Rome embassy employee to take them on special Vatican and museum tours.
The embassy in Buenos Aires was forced to schedule a mostly sightseeing tour for a delegation led by retiring Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R) of California at a time when embassy staffing had been cut in half by a government shutdown. The delegation's itinerary took it from Rio de Janeiro to Panama for dinner, then south to Quito for breakfast and dinner the next day. "These appear to be very expensive meals," an embassy cable noted blandly.
Representative Moorhead and several other congressmen and senators protest that their itineraries are often affected by military requests, and that the entertainment portions of the visits are often suggested by the embassies themselves.
So they are: suggested by embassies experienced in what happens when they do not roll out the red carpet. The diplomats get raked over the coals when the delegations return to Washington; careers can even be damaged.
The fault lies with the congressmen and their staffers, who assume that embassies are branch congressional-support offices; with the State Department's own congressional-relations bureau, which kowtows to ridiculous requests in hopes of protecting the department's already-lean budget by not antagonizing congressmen; and with the senior staff of embassies themselves, who hide from visitors the true condition of their frequently dilapidated facilities and try to protect their fragile careers, which can be destroyed by one senator placing a hold on a nomination.
Few foreign service officers object to working long hours on real government business. And some congressional delegations also put in hard hours attending official meetings, briefings, and international conferences, as well as fact-finding in the field. A little recreation is not out of order.
But when embassies are called on to heavily support congressional sightseeing junkets - and that's what many of these trips are - it's a bit much. Especially when Congress, in the late '70s, passed a bill prohibiting foreign service officers from collecting overtime pay as they had done previously, including overtime earned working in support of visiting congressmen.
A few suggestions: Congress should use commercial tourism agencies for tourist trips and should fly commercially more often, instead of using military aircraft. Congressmen should exercise more discretion about the trips they take: not necessarily fewer trips, but more-substantive ones. And Congress should pay foreign service officers for overtime worked in support of visiting members.
Even better, Congress should adequately fund the Department of State for the tasks it demands the nation's chief foreign-policy agency to perform.