Lawmakers head abroad with others picking up tab 6 from Maryland learning about world

December 26, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It's the holiday season in the nation's capital and nearly all members of Congress have left town -- mostly, they say, to spend time with family and meet with the people they represent. But, in a tried-and-true tradition that unifies Democrats and Republicans, many elected officials are also taking time to head to more exotic locales.

From Maryland alone, five of the state's eight House members and a senator are scheduled to visit more than a dozen countries scattered across four continents during the extended winter recess that ends Jan. 27. In each case, travel costs are being picked up almost entirely by government agencies or private organizations with a cause to promote.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, will spend a few days in New Zealand -- where it is summer -- on his way to a week in Antarctica where he will join a U.S. Coast Guard vessel on an ice-breaking ship mission.

Gilchrest spokeswoman Catherine M. Bassett notes that the congressman recently became chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard. "As such, he has been interested in learning more about the Coast Guard," Bassett says. "He is going along to Antarctica to look at the operations there."

Some past excesses, such as lawmakers flying to beachside resorts courtesy of corporate lobbyists, have been tempered by increased scrutiny and tighter rules, yet observers remain wary of the chumminess between public officials and the people who pay for their travel.

"Are those Coast Guard guys that Gilchrest is going to become friends with going to make the pitch for more funding? Of course," says James G. Gimpel, an associate professor at the University of Maryland. "But the members [of Congress] can make up their own minds. People who criticize these trips as junkets and perks -- that's an exaggeration."

Sarbanes' travels

Late last month, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and his wife, Christine, traveled to Salonika, Greece, as part of an American delegation to dedicate a memorial in honor of the 50,000 Greek Jews who died during the Holocaust. Sarbanes, the son of Greek immigrants, has been a resolute supporter of U.S. aid to Greece in the Senate. The $10,000 cost for the couple's trip, which included a stop in Athens, was paid by the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece.

The senator also visited India this month on a trade trip sponsored by the U.S. Commerce Department, a weeklong venture that drew upon Sarbanes' role as the senior Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee.

Kent C. Cooper, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan outfit that tracks the influence of money on politics, says that some trips -- especially those on which travel costs for family members are paid by others -- can create an inappropriate impression.

"The elected officials are getting something that a U.S. citizen wouldn't get, and getting it because they are elected officials," Cooper says. "It's the appearances that chip away at the trust of the voters in government."

Sarbanes spokesman Jesse Jacobs defended the senator's trips India and Greece, saying he represented the United States at government-sanctioned appearances. Several members of Congress and U.S. diplomats attended the Greek memorial service, while Sarbanes joined Commerce Secretary William M. Daley in talks with Indian officials about trade and financial issues.

As for Christine Sarbanes' presence, Jacobs said: "The Jewish community of Greece extended the invitation to both the senator and his wife, and it is not unusual for spouses to accompany elected officials on such occasions as this."

From Nov. 17 to Nov. 21, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, traveled to Paris for a conference on economic issues affecting countries that are part of the European Union. His wife, Kendel Ehrlich, accompanied him on the trip, which was largely paid for by the Congressional Economic Leadership Institute, a private group that fosters exchanges between U.S. and European lawmakers.

Steve Kreseski, Ehrlich's chief of staff, said the couple paid for most of Kendel Ehrlich's activities there, aside from the airfare. The trip allowed Ehrlich to become more familiar with important questions of international finance, Kreseski says.

Last month, Democratic Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland traveled to London for a weekend round-table discussion on American cynicism toward politics, which was sponsored by Harvard University. And earlier this month, Hoyer flew to Copenhagen for a meeting of the Helsinki Commission, which monitors human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union.

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