The cost of congressional travel — lawmakers who take trips abroad on the public dime — is up sharply. USA Today puts the figure at $5.2 million in the 2007-08 term, up 30 percent from 2003-04. The Wall Street Journal, counting differently, has the tab at $13 million in 2008, which it says is 50 percent higher than when Democrats took over Congress two years earlier. Sounds like a scandal whichever figures you use, right?
For one thing, the amount of privately paid travel, in which lawmakers' costs are picked up by a private entity, dropped dramatically during the same period. This welcome decline occurred in large part because a new law prohibited private groups that employ lobbyists from underwriting lawmakers' travel and imposed other restrictions. That cut down on the most egregious aspect of congressional travel, with lawmakers and congressional aides wined and dined by entities with business before them. No more private-jet junkets to play golf in Scotland.
For another, travel by members of Congress is not necessarily an abuse to be restricted; it's a practice that, in many ways, ought to be encouraged. Lawmakers have an interest — in fact, there's a public interest — in knowing about the areas on which their legislation touches. On-the-ground assessments and personal relationships forged in face-to-face meetings are valuable. The Journal counted 113 trips to Iraq by lawmakers and aides in 2008; such visits are no spa vacation. It would be a shame if lawmakers became so wary of bad publicity for being frequent fliers that they canceled worthwhile trips.
At the same time, it's as wrong to take a government-subsidized vacation as a lobbyist-underwritten one, and government-funded congressional travel is similarly subject to abuse, especially since spouses can fly free on government planes. It is hard to justify travel by lawmakers with one foot out the door; for instance, the Journal cited a two-week European trip in October 2008 by Alabama Democratic Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer, who was not running for re-election.
Congress' August recess is around the corner. No doubt lawmakers are firming up travel plans. We'd encourage them to get out and see the world — and not to worry too much about cheap shots.