WASHINGTON – With the federal government facing an economic upheaval over looming budget cuts, Congress returned to the nation’s capital from far and wide after a week off on Monday – some having ventured farther and wider than others.
Instead of sticking around town to devise a sequestration package intended to cut spending by about $1 trillion over the next nine years, about two dozen lawmakers used the recess to travel overseas. Included in the itineraries were a visit with veterans’ organizations in Guam and an attempt to arrange the release of a political prisoner in Havana.
Sequestration, slated to take effect on March 1, is expected to reduce economic growth by 0.7 percent this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Bipartisan Policy Center, meanwhile, predicts it will lead to the loss of one million jobs nationwide. Thus far, lawmakers and the White House haven’t taken a serious stab at tackling the issue.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who offered the GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12 and is considered a possible presidential candidate himself in 2016, used the break to travel to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank.
Rubio is a member of both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence, whose members usually rank among the most traveled. Several candidates with their eyes on the White House have made the same pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
“This has been an invaluable trip for me to gain important insights and firsthand accounts about the pressing security and economic issues facing this region, from the very people responsible for protecting their people and achieving lasting peace,” Rubio said about the excursion. “I look forward to returning home to continue working to improve America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, and especially towards further solidifying the unbreakable bond between the U.S. and Israel.”
Foreign trips, known as congressional delegations or CODELs for short, are a standard operating procedure for many members of Congress. Planned months in advance, taking advantage of breaks in the legislative calendar, they rarely anticipate potential complications that might otherwise keep them close to home, visiting constituents, or simply taking care of business.
According to Legistorm, a congressional information and research service, lawmakers took 1,388 congressional trips in 2012, costing taxpayers $3.7 million. The top foreign destination was Israel, which hosted 75 CODELs, followed by Turkey with 73.
But that covers only a percentage of congressional travel. Lawmakers are permitted to accept trips funded by private sources as long as the arrangement is pre-approved by the House or Senate ethics committees. That consent can be obtained if the trip conforms to congressional rules and is connected in some manner to the individual’s official duties.
Private organizations that employ registered lobbyists are prohibited from sponsoring trips that exceed two days and a member of Congress cannot be accompanied by any of the organizations’ lobbyists.
According to House rules, “Travel will not be approved if it does not include sufficient officially-connected activities, or if it includes excessive amounts of unscheduled time for opportunities for recreational activities during the official itinerary, even if such activities are engaged in at personal expense.”
Legistorm further reports that members of Congress and their staffs have taken 35,347 privately financed trips costing $80.2 million since the beginning of 2000. In 2012, the American Israel Education Foundation, the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby, topped the travel list, sponsoring 65 congressional trips at a cost of $675,860.
Some of those trips have created a stir. In 2011, for instance, during an AIPAC-sponsored trip that featured a visit to Israel’s holiest sites and foreign policy discussions with the nation’s highest officials, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kansas) was witnessed skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee. At other times, before stricter rules were enacted, some lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), took sponsor-paid trips that amounted to little more than golf outings.
This year, one lawmaker taking advantage of the break was Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who made stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of his official duties. The visits accomplished one thing for Menendez — it got him away from prying reporters asking questions about a recent private trip to the Dominican Republic that some reports suggest involved prostitutes, a claim the lawmaker denies.