DURING congressional vacation periods many members of Congress travel abroad on ``official'' fact-finding and information-gathering tours. Often they visit several countries, traveling on United States Air Force planes and sometimes accompanied by wives or family members. Since such Air Force planes reportedly cost more than $2,300 for each hour in the air, not including the salaries and expenses of the crew and the Defense Department ``official escorts,'' the cost to the American taxpayer, who foots the b ill, can be very high. This gives rise to charges that these trips are vacation ``junkets'' -- unjustifiably expensive pleasure trips at public expense. As one who spent many years in the Foreign Service, I have been on both the receiving and the originating ends of countless congressional excursions -- on the receiving end when assigned to embassies abroad and on the originating end when serving as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations in Washington. So perhaps a few comments on such ``junkets'' are not amiss.
It was not until I served as liaison with Congress that I fully realized how little time members of Congress actually have to devote to foreign policy. Congressional leaders have told me that except for a relatively few committee members dealing with international problems, the average member of Congress devotes less than 2 percent of his time to foreign affairs.
Why is this so when since World War II the US has had such immense responsibilities for defending freedom and maintaining peace and stability thrust upon it and when, at the same time, an effective foreign policy to safeguard peace and our own vital interests cannot be carried out without congressional understanding and support?
The answer is that few realize the demands on members of our Congress. They have their subcommittee and committee work (most members have about five such assignments, which is too many and often prevents them from even attending some meetings). They have quorum calls, roll calls, problems of their own constituencies, national problems, and a never-ending stream of visitors from their district or state. Furthermore, many return to their district from Friday to Monday, so there just isn't much time for fo reign problems unless directly related to their constituency or to their committee assignments. When I was working on Capitol Hill for the State Department, sometimes the only opportunity available to brief an important member on an urgent foreign-policy issue was while walking with him from his office to the Senate or House floor.
As a result, congressional opinions on foreign policy are often influenced by the media, many of which no longer seem to have time for serious background articles, but concentrate, often misleadingly, on some immediate sensational event rather than on the complex and involved causes that are at the root of the problem.
Contrary to the impression often conveyed by the media, I found most congressional visits during the many years I served abroad very useful for several reasons. With a few notable exceptions, most congressional groups and individuals with whom I met were eager to get a better understanding of problems and the reasons behind US policies. They welcomed the opportunity, free from the pressures and interruptions of Washington, for frank exchanges with foreign dignitaries and uninhibited meetings with US ambassadors and senior officials. The result -- both US congressional members and their foreign interlocutors, as well as US embassies, understood better the views and concerns of both sides.
So I favor serious congressional travel abroad as an effective means for members to gather firsthand information for their legislative work and to deepen their understanding of complex and difficult international issues.
However, let me add an important caveat . There have been abuses of congressional travel by a few members of Congress that have given such travel at taxpayers' expense a bad name.
For example, a congressman recently traveled to Brazil in a US Air Force plane accompanied by a party of six, including a family member. The charges for the plane alone without cost of crew, escort officers, their per diems, etc., were reportedly over $50,000. At a time of huge budget deficits this was surely an extravagant waste of taxpayers' money.
The fault lies not just with the few that abuse the travel privilege, but also with the congressional leaders of both parties, who are responsible for the travel criteria and approval of such visits. It is high time for the leaders of both parties to get together and reformulate the rules for congressional travel for which the American people pay, so that costs can be kept at reasonable levels and the great value of legitimate congressional travel preserved.
It is encouraging that this view is shared by at least some members of Congress. On the theory that public scrutiny might prevent some questionable trips, Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma is advocating public disclosure of the full travel costs of such trips. He perhaps put the need for reform best when he reportedly said recently:
``There's a lot [of travel] that's not justified. Not all travel is junketeering, but a lot is. Part is what I call the self-generated trip -- `It's August, let's con up a trip.' A lot is of questionable value to the taxpayer.''
Senator Nickles and others who seek reform deserve support.
Douglas MacArthur II, a consultant, international affairs lecturer, and a former ambassador to Japan, Belgium, Austria, and Iran, has served as assistant secretary of state for congressional relations.