Politics & Government

Congressman's trip to Africa prompted a change of heart

WASHINGTON — Conservative U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., joined some of his most liberal colleagues in the House of Representative on a recent trip to Africa. What he saw there changed him, at least a little.

Struck by the unrelenting poverty in a South African slum, Nunes this week joined Democrats in supporting a $50 billion global AIDS relief package. Most of his fellow Republicans opposed the bill.

“It’s one thing to hear about a problem,” Nunes said Thursday. “It’s another thing to see it for yourself. This was horrendous.”

Nunes’ recent trip to Africa was led by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. They both represent congressional districts with large Portuguese-American populations, but ideologically Frank and Nunes are polar opposites. Frank is an outspoken liberal. The nonpartisan National Journal awarded him a conservative voting score of 11 out of 100 in 2006. Nunes earned a National Journal conservative score of 83.5 in 2006. He was one of two Republicans and six Democrats on the trip.

“This was a pretty liberal group of folks I was with,” Nunes said.

Conservatives like to say that a conservative is a liberal who's been mugged by reality, but on the trip it was the conservative Nunes who was mugged by the reality of life in South Africa.

He described a vast slum of shanties in Cape Town, where tin-roofed shacks resembled backyard garden sheds. Twenty-one percent of South African adults carry the HIV virus that causes AIDS; in the slums, Nunes said; the infection rate nears 50 percent.

Nunes attributed his support for the five-year, $50 billion global AIDS bill approved Tuesday to the Africa trip. The bill targets overseas AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and aims to boost drug treatments and preventive care.

One hundred and sixteen House Republicans opposed the legislation.

“This is as absurd and irresponsible as it gets,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, another California conservative Republican, said of the $50 billion price tag. “We cannot afford such totally irrational generosity. This is benevolence gone wild.”

Nunes sided with his GOP colleagues Wednesday in a vote to cut the AIDS bill to the $30 billion requested by President Bush. But after Republicans failed to shave the total, he joined 307 other House members in supporting the final $50 billion bill.

Such publicly funded trips are known as CODELS, short for congressional delegation, but not all congressional trips are publicly funded.

Last summer, another California Republican, Rep. George Radanovich, flew to Croatia for a “Croatian Summit.” The three-day trip, which cost an estimated $7,300, was funded by the Atlantic Council of Croatia, House records show. At the time, Croatia was seeking membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Representative Radanovich has been a long-term leading advocate for promoting the strengthening and deepening of U.S.-Croatian ties through the work of Congress,” the Atlantic Council of Croatia explained in a written filing.

In a similar vein, the private Aspen Institute flew Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, to Berlin last summer for several days worth of discussions about foreign affairs. Costa is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but the Aspen Institute picked up the estimated $2,700 travel cost, which included a series of working dinners.

“Seating is arranged to expose participants to diverse views,” the Aspen Institute explained in describing one night at Berlin’s highly regarded Aigner restaurant.

Israel — which Nunes visited last year, courtesy of the American Israel Education Foundation — and Las Vegas are two of the most popular destinations for privately funded travel.

In January, for instance, two of Radanovich’s key staffers participated in a three-day trip to Las Vegas. The Consumer Electronics Association picked up the cost of roughly $1,800 per person, which included overnight stays at the Venetian resort hotel.