Two-faced Congress – R and D – blow tax dollars on self-indulgent, extravagant travel

Posted on June 13, 2011


With America’s economy in the gutter, gas prices pinching wallets, jobs vanishing, and the national debt mounting, members of Congress proclaim that they “feel Americans’ pain” and are committed to cutting back. But that noble dedication to the public’s trust doesn’t apply to one of their favorite perks — globetrotting to expensive resort locations around the globe at the expense of taxpayers and, of course, lobbyists.

The frequency and cost of lawmakers’ trips have increased sharply during the first five months of 2011, erasing any memory of our “fiscally conservative leaders” pledging just last summer to rein in travel costs. The pledges of travel austerity have been replaced with lawmakers and their spouses strolling down ornate European streets in Venice, Athens, Morocco and Monte Carlo — all supposedly in the name of doing the people’s business.

That’s not bad business if you can get it.

Even some of the new GOP/teabagger freshmen — who rose to power on a platform of supposedly federal frugality — have gotten in on the travel action.

Lawmakers travel at taxpayers’ expense or accept free trips to symposiums paid for by academic institutions and think tanks. The latter often gets lawmakers and their family members to exotic destinations for a little food for thought and a whole lot of wining and dining.

Take, for instance, the 20 lawmakers from *BOTH* parties — with all but one spouse in tow — who were ferried off to Vienna for a weeklong conference on nuclear proliferation. They stayed in style at the $3,400-per-night Intercontinental Hotel. That trip cost about $225,000 and was paid for by the elite Aspen Institute think tank.

In all, lawmakers have taken more than 240 trips financed by private groups, costing more than $1 million since January of this year — almost double the amount spent during the first five months in 2010 and far above the first five of months of 2007, before Americans were thrust into a recession and trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits. Dozens more congressional trips were footed by taxpayers, supposedly in the name of “research.” It’s amazing how many people in America will actually believe that these corporate-sponsored perk parties are “fact-finding missions.”

Last month, for example, six members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee headed to the Gulf of Mexico to visit an offshore rig, meet with oil industry executives and explore the Louisiana coastline. Fact-finding didn’t seem paramount to the five Republicans and one Democrat on the trip, however, since the House had already approved legislation to accelerate offshore drilling, and out of 148-hours of the trip, officials spent a grand total of 9 hours meeting formally and discussing government business.

Rep. Fred Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Congressional travel oversight committee — and also went on the Vienna trip — refused to answer media inquiries seeking comment.

Unlike regular travelers who find themselves facing $4-per-gallon gasoline heading into the summer, Upton and his five colleagues didn’t have to worry personally about the cost of fueling up. Most expenses were covered by a mix of taxpayer and industry dollars. (Chevron, for instance, paid $78,000 for the lawmakers’ helicopter trip to the company’s rig.)

Teabaggers Steven Palazzo of Mississippi and Steve Womack of Arkansas both campaigned last year on the idea that the federal government is wasteful, and they’ve voted — very selectively — to cut spending. In February, Womack said, “While the rest of the nation has had to tighten their financial belts, the government has loosened theirs. If America’s people must live within their means, shouldn’t its leaders do the same? The answer is yes.” Yet they both went to the Gulf Coast in May courtesy of the taxpayers, and racked up expense bills of more than $52,000 and $59,000 respectively. Both have refused comment.

But don’t blame only Palazzo and Womack. There are plenty of other self-serving hypocrites getting in on the gravy train that you’re paying for.

Nine lawmakers and eight of their family members went to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the end of April on a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of AIPAC that spent more than $200,000 on the travel. In addition to a two-hour meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they also had time to visit religious sites and popular tourist destinations like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall, and St. Peter’s Church near the Sea of Galilee. And don’t forget the taxpayer-funded museum stops. The group had a guided limousine tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and took in the light and sound show at the Tower of David Museum. Total cost: $81,000.

Also in April, the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians paid for Republican Reps. Ted Poe of Texas and Scott Garrett of New Jersey to go to Turkey — with their wives along — to meet with members of the Turkish House of Representatives. The trip, which cost more than $61,000, included a boat tour of the Bosphorus and visits to several major Turkish tourist attractions like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Poe, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defended the trip, saying, “I only participate in foreign trips that I deem relevant and beneficial to my work” and that the focus on Turkey is appropriate because it belongs to “a region that is in turmoil.”

In February, the Aspen Institute spent $164,000 to send 13 Republican and Democrat lawmakers to Puerto Rico to “discuss energy policy.” The discussion lasted three hours. In March, the American Enterprise Institute sent five senators to the immensely popular – and pricey – Sea Island, Georgia, for a three-day stay and policy discussions on “various federal issues,” according to filings. Strangely, there is no record or meeting minutes to be found on Congress’ website.

On the foreign front, where travel is more expensive, lawmakers took several trips to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. But they frequently opted for less stressful and more attractive locations like Istanbul, London, and Brussels. It’s not uncommon for congressional committees to spend upward of $200,000 per quarter on travel. Between January and March, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee spent more than $350,000 on lawmaker and staff trips, while the Senate Armed Services Committee paid out more than $290,000.

The biggest private contributor to congressional travel by far is the Aspen Institute, an international non-profit dedicated to fostering leadership, which has spent more than $6.6 million in the last 10 years funding trips for federal lawmakers. The American Israel Education Foundation comes in second, funding more than $3.8 million.

Officials at both Aspen and AIPAC say the excursions are “invaluable educational opportunities.”

Government-sponsored travel is more difficult to assess because the disclosure rules are more lax, oversight is nearly non-existent, and the result details are usually vague, if they exist at all. On the House side, lawmakers are on track to go on 35 percent more trips this year than they did last year. Senators spent roughly $1.2 million during the first quarter of 2011, ahead of last year’s annualized pace of $4.3 million.

And being a short-timer doesn’t have to crimp anyone’s style. Take former Connecticut Democrat Senator Chris Dodd; after announcing in January 2010 that he wouldn’t seek reelection, Dodd traveled to Brazil, Argentina, India, Spain, and the United Kingdom, using the taxpayers’ checkbook to pay for it all. As chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, he signed off on close to $56,000 worth of foreign travel for himself, including a $2,000 trip to Cuba just before leaving office. A spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, Dodd’s new employer, said that the former senator’s trips were “especially important to bilateral and multi-lateral relations and the global harmonization of financial regulations.”

The travel continues, despite a tightening of regulations in 2007 after the Jack Abramoff lobbying and influence scandal. “There is precious little info they make public, not just about the cost of the trip but what they’re doing on the trip,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit government watchdog. “I can understand for security reasons why they don’t say where lawmakers are staying beforehand, but after it’s all said and done there is absolutely no reason why those details cannot be made public immediately so taxpayers can decide whether the travel was necessary and appropriate.”

And we *ARE* living in the 21st Century, aren’t we?  Haven’t our “best and brightest fiscally conscious leaders” ever heard of NetMeeting and teleconferencing?

It’s amazing what kinds of blatant fraud, graft and corruption can be justified as “necessary and appropriate” by the people who not only benefit from it, but speak out ever-so-indignantly against it.