Where, oh Where Has Congress Gone?

For many lawmakers, recess is a time to hit the road - both in the US and abroad.

Like an empty football stadium between game days, the usually bustling Capitol is strangely still.

To be sure, omnipresent tourists still wander the hallways, gazing at statues of George Washington, astronaut Jack Swigart, and Hawaiian King Kamehameha. And workers are busy on the Senate floor, making the center aisle wheelchair-accessible for Sen. Max Cleland (D) of Georgia. But the business of lawmaking is on hold until Congress returns Jan. 27 from its longest break in 33 years.

Washington lawmakers dislike the term "congressional recess," believing it leaves the impression they're off playing. They prefer the term "district work periods." While cynics might say that's akin to calling taxes "revenue enhancements," most members are, indeed, back in their districts giving speeches and meeting constituents.

But they don't always confine themselves to their districts. During extended "work periods," lawmakers often disperse to the four corners of globe. Sometimes their travel is vacation, and they pay for it themselves. Sometimes it's official business, such as a fact-finding trip to help members make foreign-policy decisions. And sometimes, as footloose lawmakers may come to learn, travel can become just plain embarrassing.

While the amount of official travel is down, trips paid for by outside groups seem to be on the rise, says Amy Keller, who has followed the issue for Roll Call, a Capitol Hill semi-weekly. With the gift ban in effect, "It's one of the last perks [members] can get." Congressmen are loath to be seen traveling at public expense, she says, because it invariably becomes an election issue. "This year you're going to see [official travel] go down dramatically."

Trips during this recess fall into several categories:

* The political trip. Fund-raising and political appearances are constant activities, especially for congressional leaders in an election year. These trips are usually paid for out of campaign or party funds. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, for example, departs soon on an 11-day, 13-city campaign and fund-raising swing.

Then there's House majority leader Dick Armey's "Scrap the Code Tax Tour" with Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) of Louisiana. The Texas Republican and the self-designated "Cajun ambassador to Congress" will visit Mobile, Ala., and Baton Rouge, La., this week on Round 3 of their cross-country road show. They are using the occasion to debate the merits of a flat income tax (Mr. Armey's preference) versus a national retail-sales tax to replace the income tax (Mr. Tauzin's proposal).

Both would do away with the Internal Revenue Service as we know it. "The IRS is twice as large as the CIA and five times the size of the FBI," Tauzin says. "We spend more time and resources tracking down taxpayers than we do terrorists." The Armey-Tauzin tour is paid for by the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation.

* The foreign-policy "fact-finding" trip. These trips, usually at government expense, range from serious policy investigations to thinly disguised tourism. Which is which can be difficult for an outsider to judge - one reason such travel can be an easy target for critics.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi spent last week in Central America at the head of a delegation that includes Sens. John Breaux (D) of Louisiana, Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, Mike DeWine (R) of Ohio, and Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas. Talks included "the challenges of illegal narcotics trafficking, alien-smuggling, and increasing economic growth throughout the region," according to Senator Lott's office.

On the House side, National Security Committee chairman Floyd Spence (R) of South Carolina is visiting Malaysia, Indonesia, and Australia with a nine-member delegation on a 16-day visit "to discuss a range of security issues with foreign officials and military leaders."

* The trip that bites back. House majority whip Tom DeLay (R) of Texas got some unwanted attention over the holidays when he, his family, and three staff aides took an all-expenses-paid trip to the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific. The islands are involved in a high-profile lobbying campaign to keep their exemption from federal wage, labor, and immigration standards.

Critics, including the Clinton administration, charge that the islands are exploiting Filipino and Chinese workers in garment sweatshops for low wages. Because of the Marianas' status, the clothing, worth millions, bears the "Made in USA" label. The Marianas' government spent as much as $1.5 million lobbying Congress in 1997, Roll Call reports. Including the DeLay entourage, a total of 88 congressional visitors visited the islands last year (including seven lawmakers, five spouses, one child, and 75 staffers), the newspaper says.

In a Houston Chronicle interview, Representative DeLay derided the Marianas' critics in the administration as bureaucrats with a "leftist bent" who want to keep the islands "dependent" on federal aid. The newspaper quoted him as calling the Saipan garment industry a "free-market success," and reported DeLay found that the workers he spoke with, who make at most $3.05 an hour, were reasonably satisfied with their work and were making more than they would in their native China or the Philippines.

DeLay called for creation of a similar guest-worker program in the 50 states, "where particular companies can bring Mexican workers in" at "whatever the wage market will bear."

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