What Congress does on its summer recess: Lavish, taxpayer-funded travel

When Congress goes on recess, as it did over the Independence Day break, its members talk about the need to get back to their constituents to hear their concerns.  Unfortunately, as US News reports, talk is all some do about it.  Instead, they travel to exotic locations, with costs underwritten by lobbyists, or in some cases, by the very constituents that now can’t afford the same kind of travel due to rising fuel costs:

While many Americans watched their wallets, several dozen members of Congress used the Memorial Day recess to travel overseas to places including Rome, Venice, and Athens without digging into their own. At least 64 lawmakers traveled abroad that week, many with spouses in tow, a U.S. News review found. The largest contingent was 17 members of Congress ensconced for five nights in the $480-a-night Rome Cavalieri Hilton, courtesy of the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit group famous for transporting lawmakers to chic destinations, ranging from the Grand Cayman Islands to Istanbul, for in-depth looks at foreign policy and other issues.

The Aspen Institute brought the lawmakers to Rome for a seminar called “Political Islam: Challenges for U.S. Policy.” But it wasn’t just the members of Congress who benefited, at no cost to themselves, since all but one brought along a spouse or child. Trips for two soared as high as $20,120, and the bottom line for members and their companions rose to nearly $263,000, according to disclosure reports. …

Although “recess” isn’t the official term anymore, the globe-trotting during Memorial Day weekend debunks the idea that members are at home during the break. The Senate called the week a “state work period,” and the House used the term “district work period.” Several lawmakers ventured into war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, or to strategic locations, such as Pakistan, which Congress watchers don’t question. But they raise flags when members travel to picture-perfect places such as Italy, Greece, and the arctic reaches of Norway, as they did over Memorial Day.

Ten lawmakers went on a weeklong, taxpayer-paid trip from May 23 to 30 for meetings of the Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with subsequent stops—and la dolce vita—in Venice and Naples. The dialogue unites lawmakers with peers from the European Parliament. Seven in the U.S. delegation had a spouse along, says Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Many of these politicians and their wives travel on military jets rather than commercial flights. The military does not release the costs associated with junket travel, but flights to Italy, Norway, and Greece do not come cheaply. American taxpayers wind up footing the bill not just for their elected representatives, but also for their families to enjoy exotic, beautiful locations that their constituents only enjoy through the National Geographic channel on cable TV.

In fact, as US News reports, rising fuel prices and economic uncertainty has produced a new trend: the “staycation”. The percentage of Americans planning vacations fell to 36% this year, the lowest since the Conference Board began polling on the question in 1978. They can’t afford even modest vacations, and yet their representatives think little of using their tax money for their own globetrotting.

Travel to war zones and obvious areas of national interest makes sense. However, studying “Political Islam” does not require a trip outside the US, and especially not to the most Catholic of all nations, Italy. Nor does the study of US-China relations need to be conducted in a resort in Hawaii during the first days of spring. Jetting to Oslo to study global warming is almost an irony in itself.

Obviously, the most ethical Congress evah needs a lot more reform. Maybe these Representatives and Senators should really spend more time with their constituents — or maybe their constituents should just replace them.