There’s something about usually safe incumbents that makes cutting corners and ethical shortcuts that much more tempting to them. I suppose those options are more alluring when you know the voters are never going to hold you accountable.
Junkets are one of those temptations. Is there a legitimate use for members of Congress visiting foreign countries and meeting foreign leaders? Of course. But as usual, with little oversight or consequence for abusing the privilege, the trips become more frequent, the destinations less relevant to American geopolitical concerns, the connection to U.S. foreign policy ever more tenuous.
Ask any U.S. embassy employee and they’ll probably have some horror story of an oblivious lawmaker more interested in souvenirs and sightseeing than business with the host government. (I think I can now repeat a story heard during my Turkey years of a congressional delegation that, in the middle of a long journey through the region, began arguing amongst themselves about which city they were currently visiting. The embassy employee had to settle it by informing them they were Ankara, not Istanbul; the lack of the Bosphorus Straits or any significant body of water might have been their first clue.)
Since 2000, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, has taken 18 trips sponsored by outside organizations, at a value of $97,975.
Naturally, if you want to learn about the Islamic world, you go to . . . Paris, France. With your spouse. For a week. At a cost of $12,272, as Boxer did in 2008.
If you want to become more familiar with the impact of U.S. policy on Latin America, clearly, you go to . . . the Punta de Mita beach resort in Mexico. With your spouse. Three times, in 2006, 2005, and 2002, at a cost of roughly $6,000 per trip.
If you want to learn more about U.S.-Russia-European relations, you go to . . . Dublin, Ireland, for five days, at a cost of more than $6,000, as she did in 2005. (I salute her taste.) Or perhaps you go to London, at a cost of $8,260, as she did in 2002.
The Aspen Institute was most often underwriting the cost of Boxer’s trips; in addition to the destinations above, the group covered the costs of Boxer’s trips to the Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, the outdoor-sports resort town of Banff, Alberta, and Barcelona, Spain.
I won’t begrudge a lawmaker for attending an AIPAC conference, but I’ll bet an invitation to one in Hawaii must be more tempting than the usual annual meeting in Washington. Boxer found the time for that one in 2000.
And lest one think, “Oh, every senator does this,” . . . some don’t. In 2005, the California press started to notice the wide disparity between the travel expenses of Boxer and those of the state’s other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein: “Ms. Boxer’s 14 privately funded trips averaged out to nearly $5,300 apiece. In sharp contrast, Ms. Feinstein averaged about $292 per trip.”
Feinstein’s spokesman, Howard Gantman, gently put it that his boss “does prefer to pay her own way.”