Overseas travel by members of Congress has drawn close scrutiny and occasional controversy for years, but new pressures so burden the image of such trips that they have become a real political danger for all who undertake them.
The result, say those who track the issue, is both a noticeable drop in overseas travel and a worrisome erosion of interest and understanding of international issues among members of Congress--those who must ratify treaties, approve the deployment of U.S. forces abroad and ultimately determine much of what America does in the world.
“The whole climate for these trips has changed,” said Gregg Hilton, executive director of the National Security Caucus Foundation, a private group that arranges and funds foreign visits for members of Congress. “Even the toughest traveling is open to criticism today.”
Susan Glasser, editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, said of Congress members: “There’s extreme fear of being linked to the word ‘junket,’ and many are rightly sensitive to it. It’s politically nuclear.
“It’s a fact now that you can’t do overseas trips unless you’re in a safe seat,” she added.
Even some of those who think they are safe turn out not to be--as former Rep. Greg Laughlin of Texas discovered last year when he failed to survive the Republican primary despite strong party backing. He was defeated by onetime Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul, who played on Laughlin’s role as the most-traveled member of the House, branding him “the No. 1 junket-taker in Congress . . . traveling the world, passing out our tax dollars in foreign aid and touring Europe, Asia and the sunny Mediterranean.”
Laughlin’s destinations included Albania, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.
Having heard the voters’ message, the newly elected Paul wasted little time stressing that he would not travel abroad. “I just think it’s unnecessary for congressmen to travel overseas, and the people in our district were on my side,” he said in an interview. “You don’t need to go to Bosnia to understand we have no business there.”
Although there are no definitive statistics that chart the shift in congressional travel patterns, there is little doubt, either in Washington or abroad, that volume has dropped in the post-Cold War years--significantly so to Europe since the 1994 midterm elections.
Werner Weidenfeld, a political scientist and advisor to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, noted that whereas more than 200 members of the German parliament visited Washington in 1995, not one member of Congress made it to Bonn that year. That’s despite the fact that Germany is Western Europe’s largest, richest nation and that it hosts 100,000 U.S. troops and has more than $6 billion a year in direct U.S. commercial investment.
“There’s no doubt that the mood [in Congress] shifted in 1994,” said veteran German Social Democratic lawmaker Karsten Voigt, his party’s spokesman on foreign affairs. “The freshmen were elected on a ticket to stay home, and some [older members] I’ve known for a long time have taken the mood seriously and have stayed home too.”
Like parliamentarians in most European democracies, Voigt is not exposed to such pressures to cut travel costs. “Here, international contacts are seen as vital,” he said.
Indeed, the views of European and U.S. lawmakers on the importance of travel differ so strongly that some Congress members say they find it hard to convey to their European counterparts the importance of missing a roll call vote.
As veteran senators and representatives with strong international experience leave Congress, their knowledge of foreign affairs is simply not being replaced.
A congressional observer recalled that during the campaign for former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood’s vacant seat, the eventual winner, Democratic Rep. Ron Wyden, drew a blank when asked where Bosnia was.
And in 1995, Congress’ newly empowered Republicans tacked NATO enlargement onto their “contract with America.” Yet respected French defense specialist Francois Heisbourg soon left Washington; a series of meetings on Capitol Hill had left him with a sense of dismay at the members’ lack of understanding of what expanding the alliance actually entailed.
“It was very disturbing,” he said.
Some fret that members who have never traveled abroad now wrestle with issues such as the level of American military presence overseas.
“There’s a worry that some younger members aren’t as interested or knowledgeable [about foreign affairs] as in the past,” said Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee. “If you have a lot of members who’ve never been to an [American] embassy or consulate, it becomes easier to cut back on them because there’s less of an appreciation of exactly what they do.”
Bereuter, who also heads a large House delegation to meetings with European parliamentarians in a setting called the North Atlantic Assembly, claims the public often doesn’t see the real benefit of congressional trips. He argues, for example, that contacts between members of Congress and lawmakers from the post-Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe have helped build confidence among lawmakers in those new democracies.
“It’s an assurance that we’re not forgetting them,” Bereuter said.
In many ways, it is an irony that such intense pressures against foreign congressional travel exist at a time when the international issues that threaten America’s security, its global economic interests and its values are more complex than ever. They also prevail in an era where government travel abuses pale in comparison with those of earlier years.
The taxpayer-funded excursions of the 1960s--including the infamous 6-week-long European swing by the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) and two female aides, a three-week Mediterranean cruise by Powell’s Education and Labor Committee clerk, and the late Rep. Allen Ellender’s (D-La.) notorious 10-week tour through Africa--have no 1990s equivalent.
In part, the high level of antipathy toward foreign travel is easy to explain. In a world where communism is all but dead and pressing domestic ills cast far darker shadows over the nation’s future than any new global threat, America’s priorities have simply changed. But other factors are also at work.
With pressures to cut costs at all levels of government more intense than ever, the way lawmakers conduct their business--whether it’s the use of postal privileges, campaign financing, financial disclosures or travel--has come under close public scrutiny. Add to all this the fact that Americans, more than just about any other people, have always viewed the overseas trips of their elected representatives with suspicion (the word “junket” is an American invention), and it is a brave elected representative who ventures abroad today.
In such an environment, those who do travel tend to take greater care that the trip can be justified to voters. Then, while on their travels, they maintain lower profiles.
Rep. Marshall “Mark” Sanford (R-S.C.), for example, felt compelled to visit Bosnia-Herezegovina after President Clinton’s decision in November to extend the U.S. troop deployment there. But he also decided not to publicize the visit, which was part of a National Security Caucus Foundation delegation trip.
“Bosnia in winter is no fun, but in this political climate, any type of trip overseas is construed as a junket,” explained Sanford spokeswoman Claire Morris.
And California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s participation in a congressional delegation to China late last year was a model of political correctness. Feinstein’s aides note that her flight was paid for with frequent-flier miles and that she paid other expenses out of her own pocket. The Democrat then was careful to pitch the trip as relevant to her constituents because 70% of California’s foreign trade and one-third of its jobs are linked to Asia. Her personal fascination with Asian culture went unmentioned.
Indeed, many members of Congress now believe that finding some economic link has become the best way to avoid any smell of junketeering.
“If you can do that, it’s easier,” Bereuter said.