Congressional junkets picking up steam
WASHINGTON – Congress is keeping Andrews Air Force base plenty busy this year ferrying lawmakers all over the globe at taxpayers’ expense. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi took his wife, nine Democrats and two Republicans – Reps. Dan Lungren of California and Mike Rogers of Alabama – on a whirlwind tour of the Caribbean last week. After stops in Honduras and Mexico, they stopped in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the delegation stayed at the five-star Caneel Bay resort.
In a separate trip to the Caribbean last week, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York squired his wife and four Democratic members to Grenada and Trinidad.
All told, the military flew at least 13 congressional delegations to various destinations during the Easter recess — at an estimated rate of $10,000 or more per flying hour.
The congressional delegation trips, known as CODELs, are paid for by taxpayers. They are supposed to be directly related to members’ official duties, and House guidelines also stipulate that delegations include members of both parties to qualify for military planes — a requirement that Speaker Nancy Pelosi waived for Engel’s group and two other delegations.
“There was a good faith effort made to include Republican members,” a Pelosi spokesman said. “For one reason or another, that did not work.”
In one instance, he said, a Republican slated for a Democrat-led trip had to cancel because of a “family emergency.”
In their successful campaign to win control of Congress last fall, Democrats accused Republicans of extravagant travel paid for by lobbyists. Some of these trips carried a strong whiff of influence peddling. The worst that can be said of CODELS, and critics often say it, is that they’re junkets.
Thompson’s office said he toured the Caribbean because he now chairs the Homeland Security Committee and wanted to see vacation hot spots to “examine border security and port security.” Three other members of the delegation also brought along their spouses.
“They are going from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. everyday,” a committee spokeswoman told The Examiner. “They do not have down time.”
At the Caneel Bay resort, where room rates reach $1,100 per night, the spokeswoman said Thompson and his wife paid the “government rate.” But, according to the reservations department, Caneel Bay doesn’t “offer any government rates.”
After Caneel Bay, the group headed to Key West, Fla., for a “classified briefing on inter-jurisdictional agency task forces,” a Thompson spokeswoman said.
The Caribbean trip led by Engel, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, explored the “best practices for emergency disaster relief” and energy policy, according to his office.
Traveling with Engel and his wife were Reps. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Tex., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who went to Belgium in a delegation led by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., earlier in the week, also joined Engel’s Caribbean trip. She brought her husband with her.
Frank’s trip to Belgium and London was related to his work as chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, according to his office. The trip, which also included Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., was designed “to further understand the interrelationship between various issues related to the financial services regulatory structures” of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union, according to Frank’s office.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., also led a trip to Belgium over the two-week Easter recess. In February, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, took a delegation there.
“We’re at war with Iraq and Afghanistan, but apparently our members see Belgium as our most urgent international destination,” scoffed one Republican member of Congress.
Last week, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., defended Congressional travelers after a trip he took to Syria came under intense White House criticism.
“Members of Congress are not simply potted plants, though the White House apparently would like them to be,” he told reporters after his return. “Congress plays an important role in determining policy and providing funding for America’s international policies.”
Read other stories by Charles Hurt