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Congress' globe-trotting trips: No recession here

July 2, 2009 |  7:39 am

The rest of us seem to be tightening our belts in the face of the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Auto giants GM and Chrysler have declared bankruptcy, small businesses are hurting or going under, and just this morning the Labor Department released numbers showing that Americans lost jobs at a faster pace in June than in the prior month, and the unemployment rate ticked higher to 9.5%, the highest in 26 years.

But in Congress, where the only limit on spending is the (apparently not very effective) stigma on spending taxpayer funds, expensive travel to far-off places is booming.

According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of 60,000 congressional travel records, hundreds of lawmakers traveled overseas in 2008 at a cost of about $13 million -- not counting airfare, since the U.S. Air Force maintains a fleet of 16 planes for congressional travel. And that, says the Journal, represents a 50% jump since the Democrats took control of Congress two years ago.

Interestingly, the appetite for overseas travel is one area where Congress seems to have reached bipartisan harmony -- both Democrats and Republicans have the bug.

Hawaii's Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Democrat, led a group of senators and spouses on a four-day trip to France for the Paris Air Show, staying at the Intercontinental. One Republican on the trip, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby,  used the occasion to take a cruise on the River Seine with Defense industry executives and elected officials from Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

House members are regulars too.

Republican Bud Cramer, a lame-duck congressman from Alabama who was not running for re-election last year, took a two-week trip to Europe instead, running up a $5,700 bill for hotels, meals and other expenses.

And Democrat Brian Baird of Washington, a member of the House Science Committee, took a four-day trip to the Galápagos Islands with his wife, four other lawmakers (both Dems and GOPers) and their families to study climate change. The price tag was not priceless. It was $22,000. Questioned by a reporter, then-Congresswoman Darlene Hooley, an Oregon Democrat, explained that they were up at 6 a.m. every morning to meet with scientists, naturalists and preservationists. "If this was a luxury trip, I would eat my hat," she said.

To be fair, lots of codels (shorthand for congressional delegations) are to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, where accommodations are not luxurious, expenses are low, and the upside -- gain in knowledge, time with U.S. troops -- are real. But the Journal says many lawmakers couple their war-zone trips with visits to more tranquil spots. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year led a delegation of eight colleagues and a large entourage to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- after first spending nearly $60,000 on meals and hotels during an eight-day stay in Italy.

Maybe Wall Street executives -- regular targets of Washington's holier-than-thou flogging of excessive bonuses and salaries -- could use this the next time they testify on the Hill.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: A hawk perches on a tortoise in the Galápagos. Credit: Tui De Roy / Minden Pictures/Getty Images

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