Yes, Congressional Junkets Can Even Be Useful
Congress is in recess, and its members are scattered around the world. These much-criticized junkets take a lot of heat they don't wholly deserve.
On balance, congressional travel is useful. A few members manage to go abroad without learning anything, but most come back at least a little better informed about conditions in other countries, and with a little better understanding of what the United States faces. This makes for more responsible legislating.
To be sure, the Foreign Service is full of horror stories about embarrassing congressional escapades. Some members drink too much in public. More pull rank to get things through customs duty-free.
A congressional staffer, assigned to accompany a delegation around Latin America, was called on to brief the group before departure. He had no sooner begun to talk about the political situation in the first country on the itinerary than the chairman cut him off: "No, no. Tell us what there is to shop for."
Conscientious members of Congress take advantage of travel to inform themselves, sometimes in ways that are not apparent to outsiders.
True, a good deal of congressional travel is inspired by a search for better weather than prevails in most of the US this time of year. This frequently involves long distances with a lot of uninterrupted time to read on airplanes. But more often than one might think, the reading matter is briefing material or at least something relevant to foreign policy.
Perhaps the most notable example of this was former Sen. J. William Fulbright's use of a flight to Australia to read books on Vietnam's history. This solidified his resolve to use his chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee to oppose the Johnson administration's Southeast Asia policy. The irony is that the senator had even more reading time because the Johnson White House, in a fit of peevishness, gave him a propeller plane instead of a jet.
Critics of congressional travel love to target members' indulgence in recreational hobbies while abroad. Sometimes this is justified; other times, the sarcasm is misdirected. Former Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper (R) of Iowa formed a lasting friendship with the president of Bolivia while the two were fishing in Lake Titicaca. This led him to make his own study of Bolivia, and he later used his credibility as a conservative Midwestern Republican to promote US acceptance of the nationalization of Bolivian tin mines.
Leaving a good impression about the US may be as important as learning about the host country. Taken to see a collection of Chinese paintings secreted in a Taiwanese mountain, former Sen. Theodore Francis Green (D) of Rhode Island startled his local guides by demonstrating a knowledge of Chinese art that equaled their own.
Former Sen. Hubert Humphrey once wowed a crowd in Caracas by joining children in a pickup softball game - and then going to a nearby Sears store to buy them bats, balls, and gloves.
Foreign Service officers (and their spouses) are among the more acerbic off-the-record critics of congressional travel. But such travel provides officers opportunities - ones that can't be duplicated in Washington - to establish influential personal relationships with members of Congress. The smarter Foreign Service officers take advantage of this.
THE benefits of congressional travel could be enhanced, and the backlash reduced, by following a few simple rules: (1) If you would not be in your office on a holiday, don't expect a foreign official to be in his. (2) You learn more travelling with a small group than with a big one. (3) Except possibly in parts of France, even clumsy attempts to speak the local language are appreciated.
Most important: When Congress travels, Congress ought to pay for it. Congressional committees have funds for this purpose, and it is one of the major scandals of the decade that members allow foreign governments and special interests to pay for congressional travel.
The proper way to hear from special interests, foreign or domestic, is in a congressional office or hearing room in Washington. Then they're obligated to Congress, not the other way around.
Finally, critics ought to consider what it would be like if Congress never traveled. Former Sen. William Langer (R) of North Dakota used to brag that he had only been outside the US once, and he did not like it. Interestingly, Langer was one of two senators who voted against the United Nations Charter.
* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.