Monday, August 17, 2009

Area Congress members off to August foreign junkets

By: William C. Flook
Examiner Staff Writer
August 17, 2009

Aerolineas Argentinas' Boing 737-200 prepares to land at the Jorge Newbery airport in Buenos Aires on August 21, 2008. Argentine lawmakers are due to vote the nationalisation of Aerolineas Argentinas, presently owned by Spanish group Marsans, after the latter decided to let it down on July 2008 leaving a USD 890 million debt. AFP PHOTO/Juan Mabromata (Photo credit should read JUAN MABROMATA/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty Images)
Maryland and Virginia congressmen are dashing to far-flung locales during their monthlong recess, traveling as far afield as Israel, China and Myanmar on missions funded by taxpayers or independent groups.

While some of their colleagues in the D.C. metro area are staying put in their districts for the August break, Sens. Jim Webb and Mark Warner, D-Va.; and Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Frank Kratovil, D-Md., all flew -- or plan to fly -- overseas either as part of small delegations or on individual junkets.

Such trips are a routine part of legislators' jobs. But they have drawn increasing national scrutiny as the travel bills climb and tax dollars dwindle during the recession. A Wall Street Journal analysis last month found the annual cost of congressional overseas trips had grown to 10 times what it was in 1995, costing taxpayers $13 million in 2008.

Congressional leaders this month angered taxpayers and the military by seeking to add $330 million to the Pentagon's budget to buy four new passenger jets for government officials' use. House leaders said last Monday they would drop that request.

The local delegation's trips also entailed lobbying junkets. Hoyer and Kratovil returned from Israel over the weekend. They were on a fact-finding mission funded by a nonprofit wing of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of D.C.'s most influential lobbies.

"This trip is an excellent opportunity to study American interests in the Middle East and gain a deeper understanding of the issues involved," Hoyer said in a news release before the trip.

Warner, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, plans to travel to Europe later this month with other committee members to discuss a host of financial issues, said spokesman Kevin Hall, who declined to offer specifics.

Webb, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia and Pacific Affairs, is in the middle of a five-nation, two-week tour of Southeast Asia that included a meeting with Myanmar's ruling junta. Webb on Saturday secured the release of imprisoned American John Yettaw from the country, formerly known as Burma.

Moran last week wrapped up a visit to Ottawa for the TransAmerica Conference, which was paid for by the Falls Church-based Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange, spokesman Austin Durrer said. Moran will also be among a half-dozen congressmen visiting China the week before Labor Day, where he will meet with Chinese officials on financial issues, Durrer said. That trip will be taxpayer-funded.

Good-government groups say that Congress members open themselves up to criticism when they go on such junkets.

"These groups would not be inviting members of Congress on their dime if they weren't trying in some way to influence that lawmaker," said Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group that probes the role of money in government. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing? That's not for us to say. But it's evident that a good number of lobby groups try to curry favor in a good number of ways. And taking them around the world -- or even around the block -- is a good way to do it."

No comments: