Washington – When it comes to overseas travel, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the foreign relations committee, is the Connecticut congressional delegation’s most frequent flyer, taking nine official trips since being sworn into the Senate two years ago.
When and where a member of Congress takes an official trip is as individual as the lawmaker.
Some travel to world hot spots, such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Others go on fact- finding missions to friendlier places, and still others are sent to represent the United States at official functions or to press the president’s agenda overseas.
An analysis by The Connecticut Mirror of official overseas trips since January 2013 shows Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, has fallen into the last category lately.
In the last few years, she has traveled to Rome as part of the U.S. delegation to attend the inauguration of Pope Francis, honored those fallen in Normandy with a trip to France and visited Cuba to promote President Obama’s recent policy changes towards the island. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was on all of those trips.
Congressional delegation trips, known as CODELs, are usually — but not always—arranged by congressional committee chairmen or members of the House and Senate leadership.
They have been condemned as a costly waste of the taxpayer’s money and a burden on the Pentagon because many trips involve military aircraft, which can cost $10,000 or more an hour to fly.
They have also been defended as vital educational missions and an effective way to promote U.S. policy overseas.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who was once the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, is both a critic and a supporter of CODELs.
He thinks there should be more oversight of these trips and more detailed disclosures about who lawmakers visit, where they go and how much time is allotted for tourism or relaxation.
Currently, disclosure reports are usually filed months after the trips are taken, provide little detail beyond the countries or regions visited, and leave out much of the actual costs. The reports also fail to reveal whether a lawmaker’s spouse went along, which is permitted.
Recently, the cost for official travel abroad reported by House and Senate committees has exceeded $10 million a year, though that figure is a fraction of what the trips actually cost taxpayers, largely because it does not include the cost of military transport and escorts.
Yet Hamilton, who is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, says CODELs are necessary.
“I believe it’s important for members of Congress to travel,” he said. “It broadens their perspective and gives them first-hand experience and knowledge they need.”
|Rep. John Larson, D – 1st District|
|Rep. Joe Courtney, D – 2nd District|
|Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D – 3rd District|
|2/17/15||Cuba||(Report not yet available)|
|Rep. Jim Himes, D – 4th District|
|7/25/13||Jordan and Turkey||$12,728|
|2/16/14||Egypt, Chad and Morocco||$16,154**|
|Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D – 5th District|
|Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.|
|January 2013||Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan, Israel||$445*|
|Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn. (includes staffer expenses)|
|April 2013||Turkey, Pakistan, Aghanistan and Germany||$1,357*|
|November 2013||Germany and Belgium||$15,102|
|June 2014||Poland, Romania, Bulgaria||$14,784|
|October 2014||Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Croatia||$26,555**|
|February 2015||Germany||(Report not yet available)|
Challenges around the world
The last CODEL taken by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was a visit in October 2011 to the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan.
In the last two years, as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, visited Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Chad, Morocco and Colombia.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, made an official trip to Egypt, Afghanistan, Jordan and Israel.
Sen. Murphy in his nine trips overseas visited 14 countries, some of them more than once.
Murphy, a Democrat, traveled to Belgium (twice), Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany (three times), Ukraine (twice), Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Croatia. On six trips he was accompanied by an aide who works in his office on foreign relations issues, Jessica Elledge, adding to the cost of the trips.
While he traveled with other lawmakers on most of his trips, he was the only lawmaker on the trip to Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Croatia.
Murphy sits on a panel that oversees European affairs, which has become increasingly important because of Russia’s new aggression toward Ukraine and the terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
“Senator Murphy was first sent to Congress in 2006 in large part to bring Connecticut values to how America faces challenges around the world,” said the senator’s deputy communications director, Kaylie Hanson. “As a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs at a time of extreme turmoil and Russian aggression in the region, Sen. Murphy felt it was his duty to gather the facts and determine the best way forward for the U.S. and our close European allies.”
Murphy has taken more trips than any of the other eight Democrats on the foreign affairs committee, most of whom have more seniority than Murphy. For instance, the Democratic chairman of the committee in the last Congress, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, took six trips.
Murphy also took more trips than most of the Republican members of the committee, but not as many as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain, a renowned globe-trotter, has taken 13 trips since Jan. 1, 2013. Murphy joined him on several, notably the two visits to Ukraine, forging a relationship that has resulted in McCain’s visit to Connecticut this week to meet with the Ukrainian community and to promote his latest book, Thirteen Soldiers, at the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce.
On their December 2013 visit to Ukraine, Murphy joined McCain in addressing thousands of cheering protesters in a main plaza in Kiev.
“It was absolutely magical to be there. We were witnessing history,” Murphy said.
The protests were touched off after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a trade agreement with the European nations, preferring instead closer economic ties to Moscow.
Murphy and McCain were in Kiev to try to change, unsuccessfully as it turned out, Yanukovych’s mind. The protest ended in a crackdown and with Russia ramping up its aggression against Ukraine.
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, said the opportunity to connect with other lawmakers, especially with members of the opposite party, is a benefit of congressional trips.
“My belief is that the greatest good they do is allow members of Congress to share space on a plane for a long trip and get to know colleagues whom they barely know,” he said. “I’ve had many members tell me that they came back from CODELs and sponsored bills with seatmates they hardly knew before the trip.”
Flying on the military’s dime
With across-the-board cuts known as sequestration imposed on the Pentagon’s budget, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, barred House members from taking military transport on CODELs, unless he authorized the use of military planes — which are usually the only option for flying into a war zone like Afghanistan or Iraq.
No such limitation was placed on Senate travel.
Hamilton says when members of Congress head overseas on government business, “their experience is a bit different from travel as most of us know it.”
He said the Air Force will have a plane waiting for you, usually at Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington, D.C. “where they seat you in a very nicely appointed VIP lounge with plenty of refreshments.”
“(Lawmakers) really get first-class service,” Hamilton said. “They don’t have to carry their bags and other people make their reservations.”
Hamilton said even traveling to a war zone can sometimes be pleasurable because there are always special accommodations for VIPs.
“I’ve made trips to Vietnam (during the war) that were really quite pleasant,” he said. He also said members of Congress often pocket per-diems, or daily allowances, that have not been spent.
But he said CODELs are far preferable to another type of congressional travel that’s paid for by special interests who hope to gain influence over a lawmaker.
“I think that if a trip is worth taking, the government ought to pay for it,” he said. Hamilton, however, would like to reform the CODEL rules so they are “complete and timely.”
He also said Congress is resistant to such change.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., who won’t take a CODEL, introduced a bill in the last Congress that would require the Pentagon to notify every lawmaker who takes military transportation of the cost of the trip within 10 days of its completion. The bill would also make that information available to the public.
Jones’s legislation attracted only one co-sponsor.