Congressional travel

Foreign travel is a privilege of members of Congress which raises doubts among constituents. We are all aware of the abuses that attend some trips taken by members of Congress to faraway places at government expense. Frustration is the natural response of hard-working, tax-paying constituents when they see members flying off to Fiji to inspect military installations, signing up before they even know a trip's purpose, or using the plush Air Force fleet maintained for ''official government travel.'' Last year, 232 members traveled overseas at public expense, costing Congress $4 million and the Defense and State Departments millions more.

Opponents of congressional travel contend that these trips waste government money, allow members of Congress to mix too much pleasure with official business , give rise to heavy demands on American embassy personnel, and cause embarrassment abroad. Also, it is difficult to look at the itineraries of congressional trips without concluding that some are simply ''junkets'' taken more for pleasure than for legislative reasons.

However, we should not overlook the beneficial impact many trips have. For example, many members of Congress recently have been traveling to El Salvador to get a firsthand view of fighting there. Several have reported that their experiences help them understand better the complex situation in Central America and, in some instances, change completely their view of what our policy in Central America should be. Other trips have saved millions of taxpayer dollars by resulting in lower foreign aid or defense recommendations and have helped focus world attention on human rights violations. Members, who do not represent the administration, many times can say things a diplomat cannot say, and every president and secretary of state in recent years has thought congressional travel valuable. Supporters of travel note that tax-favored ''junkets'' by American businessmen may be far more costly to the Treasury, that other nations encourage foreign travel by their legislators, that Congress must be represented at parliamentarians' meetings abroad, and that the alternative to government-financed travel for members is travel paid by special interests.

Given the strength of the arguments on both sides, the question is not whether to abolish congressional travel but how to get rid of frivolous travel while maintaining the worthwhile. In the past, Congress has taken several steps to try to tighten its procedures. Full reporting to appropriate congressional committees began in 1954, and public reporting in the Congressional Record commenced in 1959. The number of House committees able to spend funds for foreign travel was sharply limited in 1963, and in 1977 both the House and Senate adopted rules forbidding post-election ''lame duck'' travel by members who are not returning to Congress. A member cannot rush off on a ''junket'' with a ''blank check'' whenever he wishes. The trip must be authorized by the congressional leadership and committee, or an executive request, and vouchers submitted to verify expenses, usually only $75 of which may be covered by an official daily stipend. Given the cost of travel, members frequently pay additional expenses from personal funds.

All foreign travel is not bad, and steps should be taken to facilitate worthwhile travel. First, members of Congress returning from trips should publicize the benefits and accomplishments of the trip to Congress and their states and districts - showing the positive side of such travel instead of hoping it goes unnoticed. Second, members who do not take trips should be scrutinized just as members who travel are scrutinized. An appropriate question to a member professing to have a knowledgeable position on a question of foreign policy is whether he has visited the area to observe things up close. Third, delegations should invite the press along on trips. Rather than keeping itineraries from the press and fueling suspicions that too many extras have been included, we should open up the trips to show how fruitful they are.

Additional restrictions should be considered. First, congressional delegations should be prevented from using military transportation when less-expensive commercial transportation would be adequate. Second, the size of a delegation should be restricted to the number of members that can be justified by the trip's stated purpose. Third, official spending on trips should not be allowed to exceed the amount allotted to members in the form of daily stipends. Fourth, there should be some form of ''peer review'' to pass on the legislative relevance of trips. Fifth, members should be discouraged from taking trips during the session after they announce retirement or are defeated in a primary election. Finally, increased public disclosure of trips in the Congressional Record and in formal committee reports should be mandated. Making members fully accountable for the public funds they spend abroad is the surest way to end abuse.

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