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Speaking Politics word of the week: Codel

The season of congressional delegations traveling overseas is under way.

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    In February 2011, a Congressional delegation including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont toured the Afghan National Police Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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Codel: A congressional delegation traveling overseas – a pervasive fact of Washington life despite sharp questions from taxpayer groups and journalists over how many of the trips are junkets.

Codel season is under way. A bipartisan Senate group that included Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona (R) and Joe Donnelly of Indiana (D) flew to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pentagon, as in the past, has urged lawmakers to be judicious about traveling to Afghanistan with the Taliban expected to ramp up attacks in summer, but members say they need to get a firsthand look.

Spending cuts under the 2013 “sequester” – the result of budget impasses between President Obama and the Republican House – led to some limits on codels. Lawmakers seeking all-expense-paid trips began relying on private groups, a shift that ethics experts have called troubling. Such privately sponsored excursions have been the source of many congressional ethics investigations.

Overall, members of Congress have taken more than 1,000 trips in 2016, according to the congressional database LegiStorm. That’s roughly in line with the 2,182 taken last year. The website counts domestic as well as overseas trips; Israel has been the most popular non-US destination in recent years.

Codels have long stirred journalistic and watchdog outrage. They also were a recent source of campaign controversy in North Carolina’s newly redrawn 2nd District, which pitted two incumbent Republicans against each other in the June primary. Rep. Renee Ellmers accused her colleague George Holding of spending excessive time and money on codels and introduced a bill imposing new reporting requirements for the trips. Holding defended his travels, in part because he said senior Obama administration officials “do not tell us the truth in Congress.”

Ellmers charged that when Ohio’s John Boehner – a deeply unpopular figure among hard-core conservatives – served as House speaker, he “would reward members with codel trips.” Pointing to a costly journey that Holding took to the Middle East, she said, “Tell me who was in with leadership and who was not.” Her gambit didn’t work; she was the year’s first GOP incumbent to lose a primary.

American University government professor Jennifer Lawless recently examined whether women in Congress – who are seen as having greater bipartisan tendencies than men – are more inclined to travel on a bipartisan basis rather than go with like-minded legislators. She and the University of Texas’ Sean Theriault looked at the more than 9,700 trips taken between 1977 and 2012 and concluded: “Women are just as likely as men to take partisan trips, and no more likely to engage in bipartisan travel.”

Before stepping down last fall, Washington Post “In The Loop” columnist Al Kamen took a special interest in codels. In his farewell column, Kamen recalled how he thwarted some of the “most outrageous” trips, such as a 12-day tour involving 12 senators – plus spouses and aides – that started in Marrakesh and continued to Jerusalem, Cairo, a resort on the Red Sea, the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and finally Damascus.

“But the junkets continue — the lure is just too great,” Kamen wrote. “Newly discovered ‘security concerns’ are cited to keep itineraries secret at least till almost wheels up. So I was tardy writing about then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s stunning 10-day tour of China in 2011 with nine other senators, spouses and staffers — visiting dangerous, diplomatically sensitive places such as a gambling resort in Macau, Hong Kong, the Terra Cotta Warriors and the Great Wall.”

When a lawmaker’s aides go on a trip without the boss, it’s known as a “staffdel” – a much lower-budget (but more free-spirited, to hear some ex-aides tell it) undertaking.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his “Speaking Politics” blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

Interested in decoding what candidates are saying? Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark’s latest book, “Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election,” is now out.

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