You find mountains of ephemera buried in the Kafkaesque flurry of records that accompany every Congressional session. Heated speeches about school lunches. The repeal of an obscure 1918 law that only pertains to the land use of one small parcel in Idaho. Votes on the naming of post offices. And then there are Foreign Travel Expenditure Reports.
Every year congressmen travel to foreign countries. Private businesses and corporations fund some of these trips, taxpayers pay for others. Only the latter show up in the Congressional Record, which is printed daily when Congress is in session and is also available online. Dr. Matthew Dabros, a professor of political science at Western Connecticut State University, is conducting a landmark study on these taxpayer-funded trips and what they can tell us about congress.
Dr. Dabros became interested in the subject while working on his doctoral dissertation, which dealt with congressional opportunism and corruption. Foreign travel was especially intriguing to him because “it is pretty nontransparent, pretty opaque,” he said. Although he noted that the Democrat controlled 110th congress did pass some rules for greater transparency, data remains obscure. In order to get a clearer picture of taxpayer-funded travel Dr. Dabros is wading through decades of documents, analyzing the buried bits about foreign travel.
The purpose of these trips depends on whom you ask. “Members of congress often argue that one of the reasons they need to engage in foreign travel is oversight of the executive branch. So they might be traveling to military installations, or destinations related to foreign policy. You see in the post-9/11 period there is a lot of traveling to the Middle East,” said Dr. Dabros. For another example, during the recent surge in child migrants a contingent of congressman visited Honduras and Guatemala.
The second reason congress members give is that they want to interact with foreign officials including parliamentary members, business people, and military personnel in order to form better relationships between the United States and these parties.
The press has a different opinion. “[Publications] look upon foreign travel as a way for congressional members to go out on a junket, on pleasure cruises,” said Dr. Dabros. In 2009, a series of articles criticizing the expenditures for being lavish and unnecessary appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
Dr. Dabros has found that Democrats and Republicans do not vary in how many trips they take. “The difference between them comes down to decimals,” he said. According to his research, since 2001 Democrats take 5.08 trips per two-year term while Republicans take 5.5. There is no significant difference between Senate and House members.
The real differences come when you look at the majority party vs. the minority party in Congress. Those who belong to the party in power take more trips. Congressmen who are voluntarily leaving Congress take the most trips out of everyone. Majority party members who are leaving take an average of eight trips per term while their minority party candidates take only 5.5. “There are a couple of reasons for this. There is a relevant clause in the House rules that say if you are leaving congress or if you have been defeated than you should not take any foreign travel. However, the committees or Speaker of the House can authorize travel,” said Dr. Dabros. Party officials are more likely to grant favors to their own members, giving those whose party is in control a greater ability to take advantage of the perks of the job. “There’s this notion that those leaving congress see this as the last opportunity to take advantage of the perks of the job. It’s called the ‘last period problem.’ Because foreign travel lacks transparency, and because in the last term no one has to be worried about reelected, it is rational or makes sense for members of congress to take more travel,” said Dr. Dabros.
There is a wild variance in number of trips taken from one member of the legislature to another. Between 30-35% of congressional members never take a single trip during their term. “On the other hand, in each congress over the past decade or so you have a couple people who are going on what some people might consider excessive with 20 or 30 trips in two years. It’s to the point where one might question the necessity of some of that travel,” said Dr. Dabros.
Dr. Dabros is planning to analyze the record all the way back to 1958, when taxpayer funded congressional travel was first required to be reported. He hopes to publish a series of articles about his findings. Until his research is complete he is reserving judgment on the validity of these trips.