Lawmakers spend millions on foreign travel to more than 120 countries

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 23, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, Calif., can talk publicly about his upcoming trip to South America. With him, that's not always the case.

Like other Central Valley lawmakers, Nunes periodically travels the world while Congress is out of session. Some trips, though, remain semi-secret, as part of Nunes' work on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

"You can have all the briefings you want," Nunes said Friday, "but the only way you can do oversight is to go there."

Congressional foreign travel can take several forms, not all of them easily tracked.

Sometimes, lawmakers travel courtesy of outside interests. These must be fully reported. In August, for instance, freshman Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, Calif., joined other lawmakers in a trip to Israel funded by the American Israel Education Foundation. Denham's week-long trip cost the foundation $20,227, records show.

The foundation, allied with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is one of the most aggressive sponsors of foreign travel. Last August alone, the foundation paid for travel to Israel by 81 members of Congress.

"We must continue our strong friendship with Israel, our strongest democratic ally in the Middle East, and we must take seriously any threats from rogue states in the region as they threaten the future of democracy in the war torn region," Denham states in the Foreign Affairs section of his congressional web site.

Other trips are sponsored by congressional leaders or by individual congressional committees. All told, House and Senate members and their staff spend about $13 million a year on official foreign travel and visit more than 120 countries annually, according to a tally by the Congressional Research Service.

In November, for instance, records show that retiring Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, Calif., spent a week traveling through Panama, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Cardoza, who announced his retirement in October, was one of four Californians on the November trip, led by the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas. He also had joined the Israel trip in April.

In early January, Nunes will join House Speaker John Boehner and five other House Republicans on a leadership-sponsored congressional delegation traveling to Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. They'll be talking with foreign officials and others about trade agreements, anti-drug efforts and security issues.

Another form of congressional travel is sponsored directly by a committee. In February, for instance, records show the House Agriculture Committee sponsored Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Calif., on a three-day trip to Austria. The trip cost $4,622.04.

The least specifically reported form of travel is sponsored by the House intelligence committee and its Senate counterpart, currently chaired by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. These also happen to be the committees whose members globe-trot most exotically.

"There's a lot of ground to cover," Nunes said. "When I get out of this job, it's going to be hard to want to leave the country again, except maybe to go to the Azores."

Unlike other congressional travel, the names of countries are generally omitted in the travel reports of intelligence committee members. In late April, for instance, records show simply that Nunes was in "Africa" for about five days. In June, records show, he was in "Europe" and "North Africa."

All told, Nunes figures he's spent about a month overseas this year on intelligence committee business; he said he's stopped keeping track of how many countries he's visited. A few trips he'll mention, such as those made to Kashmir and South Korea, because they have previously been publicized.

"A lot of the places we go to, they don't get a lot of visitors," Nunes said, adding that "it has been the best experience I've had in Congress, to be able to meet with these men and women in uniform, and sometimes not in uniform."

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