Knowing whether work trips are more play may require being there, official says

April 28, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun Stephen E. Nordlinger of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Junket or work journey?

Reports on foreign travel by members of Congress, as published in the Congressional Record, offer few clues about which of their trips abroad is which.

And old hands at the State Department, whose personnel almost always are on hand when congressmen travel overseas, say it's hard to tell whether lawmakers are working or playing on any of their trips unless you're right there with them.

Often, though, aides from the department are right there. A U.S. embassy official is routinely assigned to escort a member of Congress visiting a foreign country unless the member refuses the escort, said one former State Department official who asked not to be identified.

He recalled, for instance, a time when a high-ranking member of the House -- still high-ranking today -- flew into a Caribbean country with some of his colleagues. Arriving aboard a U.S. military plane, he said, the congressman ordered the pilot to bypass the airport at the capital, where officials of the host country were waiting to greet him, and to land instead at a nearby resort.

"The congressional delegation spent the next few days there playing golf," said the former State Department official. "The congressman was known in the department to be particularly fond of testing his golf game on foreign courses."

On the other hand, the man acknowledged, some visits to foreign capitals by members of Congress play an important, positive role in U.S. diplomacy.

"Often, members of Congress are able to gain access to high-level government officials and to speak frankly with them about matters of policy," he said. "And often these are the same officials who shy away from dealing with us departmental types in the embassy."

But it's hard to distinguish a junket from a working trip, he said, unless you're "right there, on hand."

Americans watching national television in their living rooms a year ago, however, got close to a firsthand look at the way eight members of the House Ways and Means Committee and seven staff aides spent the last five days of a two-week odyssey to South America and Central America.

The delegation, led by Representative Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., became the unwitting star of two ABC "Prime Time" programs, which showed the visitors frolicking on the beaches of Barbados in April 1990 with four lobbyists acting as hosts.

The entire trip -- which also included stops in Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica -- cost more than $98,000, based on information in the Congressional Record. The Barbados leg cost $24,261.90.

Perhaps the real significance of the Barbados trip, however, was that it may never have come to light if ABC had not gotten an advance tip that it was to take place and thus was on hand to film it.

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