Members of Congress Need To Travel

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The recent brouhaha over congressional plans to buy new military jets for official travel has brought a new round of public criticism of congressional "junkets." Former Congressman Lee Hamilton says, on the contrary: "Members of Congress Need to Travel."

Spooked by the public outcry, the House of Representatives has cancelled its order for four new military jet aircraft that would have been used occasionally to ferry members of Congress around the world. Even so, you shouldn't expect for a minute that the next time you fly, your seatmate in coach will be some duly humbled congressman on a fact-finding mission. 

For the most part, when members of Congress head overseas on government business, their experience is a bit different from travel as most of us know it. To begin with, there's no need to worry about schedules or wait at the ticket counter or fret about missing a flight because you're stuck in a security line. If you're flying courtesy of the government, the Air Force will have a plane waiting whenever you're ready to go. Someone picks you up at your house or on Capitol Hill and takes you to Andrews Air Force Base, where they seat you in a very nicely appointed VIP lounge with plenty of refreshments. At some point along the way, they also take charge of your bags; the next time you'll see them will be in your hotel room. You carry on board only those papers and belongings you need in flight. 

In the air, members of Congress fly with more room and amenities than first class on commercial flights, with plenty of legroom, excellent meals and attentive service. There's usually a doctor on the flight, offering tips for staying healthy on long jaunts. Quite often, spouses are included in the trip, "for protocol purposes," as the phrase goes. At your destination, you're met by an embassy official who not only has all the details you'll need on your itinerary, but also a wealth of information on restaurants, entertainment (tickets available upon request), museums, and sightseeing, along with information on the politics, personalities, economy and culture of the country you're visiting. 

It can sound a lot like one of those tours to exotic locales that colleges now arrange for alumni, except that the taxpayer is picking up much of the bill. And let me assure you, it's not a modest bill. A military plane costs an estimated $10,000 an hour to operate — and that's before you factor in the costs of the actual visit on the ground. 

Given Americans' distaste for letting their public officials enjoy unusual privileges, you might be tempted to deride government-sponsored travel as a waste of time and money. But despite everything I've just described, I don't think it is. 

The reason is that the alternative — privately sponsored travel — is worse. If a group with an interest in legislation is paying for a trip, it enjoys an extraordinary advantage, because it has those politicians' undivided attention and creates obligations to the group. If you control the transportation, then you control much of the official's itinerary. This is why Congress has sensibly changed the rules governing travel and begun to restrict privately sponsored trips. 

And members of Congress do need to travel. Even now, many of these trips can hardly be considered junkets: They go to some pretty uncomfortable places, like Iraq and Afghanistan — where the projection of American power means that the bulk of Americans who travel there are the kind who pack an M-16 as an ordinary part of their luggage. 

Members of Congress need to see places that our policies affect, whether they're in the glamorous capital cities of the world, in a war zone, in the developing world or even in Antarctica. There's no other way to understand fully what's at stake. 

Members of Congress who travel to difficult spots around the world and try to learn first-hand how our policies and programs work (or don't work) on the ground should be commended, not criticized. Elected officials who don't travel are as much of a problem as those who abuse the privilege. 

Don't get me wrong: There are certainly some members who vacation on the public dime. And there's no question that opportunities to keep expenses down on official trips should be a matter of course for Congress. Still, railing against all congressional travel isn't especially useful. 

Instead, I believe, the process ought to be as transparent as possible. Every proposed trip should have a legislative purpose, its costs should be rigorously, fully and honestly disclosed, and the ethics committees in the House and Senate should be charged with ensuring that congressional travel privileges don't get abused. A detailed report of the trip with all the relevant information, findings and conclusions should be required. That way, Americans can be sure they're getting public-policy value for their money. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)