Foreign travel can be a two-edged sword for San Joaquin Valley lawmakers, who broaden their horizons but may risk criticism if they overdo it.
This week, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, showed the educational side of overseas travel when he joined a bipartisan congressional delegation visiting Europe and the Middle East. The trip, Valadao said in Egypt, is supposed to serve multiple purposes.
“As we continue to fight terrorism abroad, it is important to strengthen relationships with allies in the region, making this visit even more important,” Valadao said in a statement.
Led by the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Texas Republican Michael McCaul, the seven-member delegation, which returns to the United States early next week, comprises five Republicans and two Democrats.
As official congressional delegations often do, the lawmakers have covered a lot of territory, from a 660-acre Sinai Peninsula camp occupied by the peacekeeping Multinational Force & Observers to a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
A former head of Egypt’s armed forces, Sissi led the 2013 coup that toppled President Mohammed Morsi. He subsequently won election to the presidency in 2014, claiming 97 percent of the popular vote.
The United States is leading the fight against ISIS, however, as ISIS continues to expand globally, there is much work to be done.
Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, speaking in Egypt
On Capitol Hill, the McCaul-led trip is called a “codel,” which is short for congressional delegation. These trips are taxpayer-paid and often organized around specific committees.
Last December, for instance, Valadao and other House Appropriations Committee members reported traveling to Kuwait and Iraq. A month earlier, Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, traveled on House Energy and Commerce Committee business to three South American countries.
Other trips are organized around congressional leaders rather than specific committees, such as a trip last June to the countries of Georgia, Ukraine and Ireland joined by Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara.
“We are here today to witness firsthand here in Ukraine the face of Russian aggression, and to stand with Ukraine as it is standing against Russian aggression,” the trip’s leader, Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., said in Kiev.
That same month, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, was in Latvia along with seven other members of the House of Representatives.
All of the codel expenses are made public, down to the penny, though destinations are sometimes opaque. When Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, traveled last December in his capacity as chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the destinations were identified, generically, only as “Europe” and “Asia.”
“That’s for security reasons,” Nunes’ spokesman Jack Langer said Friday, adding that “we don’t announce the country he’s visiting until after he leaves.”
Besides codels, members of Congress can travel courtesy of private or other organizations. This so-called “gift travel,” which critics and headline writers invariably dub “junkets,” also must be reported, and it can be extensive.
In 2013 the website LegiStorm, which collects congressional records, found that members of Congress and their staffers had taken nearly 1,900 privately funded trips at a cost of $6 million. That was the most since travel rules were tightened in 2007.
Last August, for instance, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, reported traveling to the Czech Republic courtesy of the Ripon Society and the Franklin Center for Global Policy Exchange. The former is a Republican organization and the latter brings members of Congress together with their foreign counterparts.
Trips to Israel are particularly popular, sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation. Lawmakers including Denham, Valadao and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, have all gone on the Israel trips.
Other countries typically see fewer, but no-less enthusiastic, congressional visitors, as when Costa visited Portugal last year through the auspices of the Luso-American Development Foundation. Nunes, who shares Costa’s Portuguese heritage, visited the same country in 2013 through a group called the European Ideas Network.
“Our special relationship with Portugal must be continuously strengthened,” Costa declared in the Congressional Record last June.