March of the Politicians

Journal calls out Congress’s climate-change junket Down Under

On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal fronted an article about a trip that ten members of Congress took last year to the South Pacific and Antarctica, ostensibly to study climate change. The eleven-day trip, which occurred over New Year’s 2008, included six of the representatives’ spouses and featured diving and snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef; a cable car through the Australian rain forest; a visit to a penguin rookery in Antarctica; and a one-night stay in a five-star Hawaiian resort.

In response to the Journal article, the Associated Press reported, the trip’s leader “lashed out at the news media Monday, saying sensationalized coverage of taxpayer-funded trips could jeopardize the ability of Congress to learn firsthand about issues such as climate change and ocean acidification.”

“I’m in a real bind here,” Congressman Brian Baird, D-Wash., told the AP. “I think I have a responsibility to know about the oceans, for the good of our country. But if these kinds of articles are going to try to make an impression that I am just going on vacation, then I can’t do it anymore. And then a passionate voice on behalf of the world’s oceans is effectively going to be silenced.”

Congressional delegation trips (or Codels, for short) are a common and necessary practice. Every year, members of the House and Senate travel the world for a variety of reasons, from so-called “fact-finding” missions to attending high-profile ceremonies. Foreign Policy magazine recently obtained an exclusive list of the trips taking place during the current August recess. But, contrary to Baird’s accusation about the threat of bad publicity, if there is any criticism to be leveled, it is that the media has not been critical enough of these sojourns. Most Codels go completely uncovered and that should change. Journalists have a responsibility to assess which ones are worthwhile and which ones are expensive wastes of time.

In language and tone, the Journal’s article about Baird’s trip left no doubt that spending a lot of money to hit so many “tourist hot spots” should be viewed with the utmost suspicion (if not overt scorn). “The lawmakers reported a cost to taxpayers of $103,000,” the article, by Brody Mullins and T.W. Farnam, reported. “That figure, however, doesn’t include the actual flying, because the trip used the Air Force planes, not commercial carriers. Flight costs would lift the total tab to more than $500,000, based on Defense Department figures for aircraft per-hour operating costs.”

Baird insisted to the Journal that the knowledge he gained on the trip was “profoundly important” to how he does his job and “more valuable than 100 [Congressional] hearings” on global warming. The word for that rationalization, to put it delicately, is guano.

Baird’s insinuation that he cannot be a “passionate voice on behalf the world’s oceans” without traveling to exotic locales is disingenuous and insulting. Moreover, his job is to make laws that solve problems, and greenhouse-gas emissions are a well-established problem (among Democrats, at least). How visiting a penguin rookery and going scuba diving help Baird and his colleagues parse the details of proposed solutions such as the cap-and-trade bill currently floating through Congress is anybody’s guess. They’d have been much better off touring Europe, which has some experience with the difficulties of making such a system work (that’s what Nancy Pelosi did after leading a trip to Greenland in 2007).

On the other hand, if they were looking for evidence of global warming that would help them decide if climate legislation is necessary in the first place, they could’ve stayed in the United States. Want to see melting glaciers? Head to Montana. Coral bleaching? Florida. Threatened species (both flora and fauna)? Wyoming. You don’t need a pricey vacation to convince yourself that action is required. Not that the journey Down Under made much difference to the representatives, at any rate.

“What’s missing from this Wall Street Journal article about expensive taxpayer-funded congressional travel to exotic locations?” Grist’s Kate Sheppard asked on Monday. “The fact that seven of the 10 representatives who spent about a half a million bucks to go see climate-change-addled penguins actually voted against the House bill [the American Clean Energy and Security Act] that seeks to address the concern.”

Of course, a vote against the Waxman-Markey bill doesn’t mean the trip to Antarctica failed to convince Baird and his colleagues that global warming is a problem (climatologically speaking, the legislation is pretty weak). And they could justify the sojourn on other grounds. The best case to be made, perhaps, is that six of the representatives on the trip are members of the House Science and Technology committee, which has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation and NASA, which are conducting research in Antarctica.

That was the explanation that Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma (a member of the science committee) gave to the Associated Press after he and Baird caught flak for a separate trip to the Galapagos Islands six months after the Antarctic voyage. Last October, the television show Inside Edition called the Galapagos expedition “the trip of a lifetime on your dime.” In response, Lucas told the AP: “Agriculture is an important aspect of the economy in Oklahoma, and as we have seen in recent years, weather can have a negative impact on our crops. Therefore, the research done [in the Galapagos on El Niño] is important not only to the entire country, but specifically to Oklahoma and the Third Congressional District. … I must ensure proper oversight of these facilities.”

Fair enough. Perhaps. Again, Congressional delegation trips are nothing new. Senator John McCain led expeditions to both Antarctica and the Arctic in 2006. Senator Barbara Boxer took a group of her colleagues to Greenland for a weekend in 2007. And Codels are not limited to climate change.

According to the Journal’s article about Baird’s Antarctic voyage, however, “Taxpayer-funded travel for Congress is booming. Legislators and aides reported spending about $13 million on overseas trips last year, a Journal analysis has shown, a nearly 10-fold jump since 1995.” And most of them get no coverage at all.

It’s time that media began combing through these myriad trips, separating legitimate journeys from frivolous junkets. A great place to start is Foreign Policy’s list of trips taking place this August. When members of Congress return after Labor Day, the press should be waiting… with plenty of hard questions about how, exactly, they spent their summer vacations.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.