Public Foots Bill As US Lawmakers Go Globetrotting
WASHINGTON — IN its first session, the 104th Congress curtailed many of the official perks and liberties voters have grown to loathe. But some old opportunities for legislative largess survive, among them: congressional junkets.
Each year, during legislative breaks, many members of Congress and their staffs travel to foreign countries to meet with dignitaries and observe conditions. For this year's January recess, lawmakers planned about two dozen such expeditions.
These trips can be vital to the success of American foreign policy. They provide sometimes-parochial lawmakers with a view of the wider world and update senior members on crisis conditions.
But too often, critics say, lawmakers treat them like glorified vacations: taking spouses, staying in five-star hotels, spending generous amounts of petty cash, and pressing embassy personnel into virtual butlerhood.
As many voters continue to clamor for a more austere government, and the diplomatic corps struggles with deep cuts in funding, representatives of the world's leading democracy may face mounting pressure to stop wasteful travel.
''It is imperative that leaders in Congress have firsthand experience of American international programs and the local situations in which they operate,'' says Tex Harris, president of the American Foreign Service Association. ''What we don't need is congressional tourism.''
Indeed, from the moment they lift off from Washington, congressional delegations, known as ''CODELS,'' have ample opportunities to spend the people's money. Rather than contend with commercial flights, many CODELS travel aboard Air Force jets, despite the higher cost. Once on the ground, CODEL members benefit from self-imposed rules that put discretionary money in their pockets.
Here's how it works: Each year, the State Department determines how much a government employee, traveling comfortably, would require for food, lodging, and incidental expenses in each of the world's major cities. When they travel abroad, diplomats and others are held to these ''per-diem'' standards.
According to a State Department official who requested anonymity, members of Congress add an extra 50 percent to these per-diem rates. When visiting Hong Kong, for example, most government employees would receive $314 per day. CODELS, however, get $471.
SUCH payments are ironic, the official says, because CODELS generally need to spend less money than their nonelected counterparts. Their status, he says, affords them complimentary hotel upgrades and transportation, as well as meals and entertainment from local dignitaries.
Congressional rules do not require that CODEL members account for their spending or return unspent funds.
At a time when cuts in funding have led to reductions in embassy staffs, and two furloughs have delayed many paychecks, some diplomats are chafing at CODEL demands.
In late December, State Department officials leaked a memo prepared by the staff of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter (R), which outlined Senator Specter's wishes for the trip he is taking this month to Israel, Egypt, several African nations, and the Hague.
While the memo cited the trip's goals as reviewing intelligence capabilities in Africa, assessing prospects for peace in the Middle East, and reviewing the progress of the War Crimes Tribunal, it reminded embassy personnel that Specter ''is an avid squash player'' and instructed them to organize games in air-conditioned courts with local opponents at every stop. The memo also asked embassy staffers to provide a separate itinerary for Specter's wife, and the wife of Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby (R).
In light of this memo's release, criticism from the Washington media, and entreaties by House Speaker Newt Gingrich not to leave until a budget deal had been brokered, as many as nine January CODELS have been cancelled or indefinitely postponed.
One of the postponements was a 16-day, six-nation trip to South America by Rep. Carlos Moorehead (R) of California, who chairs a House subcommittee studying problems of international copyright piracy. He put his excursion on hold after several American embassies complained publicly about his plans to include five colleagues and their spouses.
Planning to travel via an Air Force jet, Mr. Moorehead had intended to cover his own expenses for a two-day tour of Machu Picchu in Peru, his staff notes.
''As long as a government shutdown requires us to divide federal employees into 'essential' and 'non-essential' groupings,'' an embassy cable barked, ''we see no reason why this categorization should not be applied to CODELS as well.'' The cable characterized Moorehead's trip, and many like it, as ''extravagant'' and ''wasteful.''
Yet serious work is accomplished on some lawmaker trips. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, traveling with only one staff member during her trip to Africa, is visiting nine countries in 16 days, including visits to refugee camps in Rwanda and Burundi, and a stopover in civil-war-torn Liberia. Senator Kassebaum's only fringe benefit so far, her staff says, was an unconventional gift from a dignitary in Mali: a live goat.