Critics say the trips raise red flags
WASHINGTON – Rep. Jeff Flake has built a reputation in Washington as a fiscal conservative by berating his colleagues for wasting taxpayer money.
But he’s not against traveling the globe on the taxpayer’s dime.
Flake, who says the trips are necessary for members of Congress, recently took his wife, Cheryl, on a weeklong trip to Brazil, which included visits to the beach-studded city of Rio de Janeiro and the lush tropical rain forest of the Amazon.
Official travel to foreign countries is one of the many perks of serving in Congress, and the expeditions can be costly. Since 1994, House members have taken more than 5,600 government-sponsored trips at a cost of at least $15.9 million, according to CQ MoneyLine.
Flake, a Mesa Republican, traveled to Brazil on official congressional business along with five other lawmakers to learn more about global warming and ethanol.
The February trip was one of at least a dozen he has taken at taxpayer expense in the past five years – more than any of the state’s seven other House members, according to House public records – including trips to China, Cuba and Fiji.
Flake, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defends his foreign travel, saying congressional trips can help members of Congress ensure the foreign aid they approve is being used wisely and see the impact of U.S. policies on other countries.
“If you’re on the relevant committees with jurisdiction over foreign policy and foreign spending, you’d better take trips,” he said. “You’d better go over and see what you’re spending money on.”
Critics say the trips raise red flags, especially when they involve travel to warmer climates during winter, Paris and other European vacation spots and exotic locales such as China. Taking spouses along also can raise suspicions, some say.
Some trips can be more worthwhile than others, says Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
“Obviously, a (trip) to Iraq is never fun,” she said. “But there often seem to be these fact-finding trips to Europe. There’s a lot of time set aside for shopping and tennis games.
“These are things that really start seeming like vacations at taxpayer expense.”
Flake is perhaps the most vocal politician against earmarks, those spending projects inserted into bills by lawmakers intent on bringing home the bacon.
He is one of three Arizona lawmakers in Washington who refuse to ask for federal money for local projects. Republican Rep. John Shadegg and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., say they shun earmarks because they waste taxpayer money.
Shadegg has taken eight federally funded trips in that same time frame to places such as Japan, Greece and Iraq.
“I’ve found all of the trips to be educational, particularly the trips to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Shadegg said. “There’s nothing like being on the ground and seeing what goes on there.”
McCain, who is running for president, has taken at least 17 federally funded trips in the past five years, more than three times as many as Sen. Jon Kyl, according to Senate public records.
McCain, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, recently returned from a five-day trip through five countries: England, France, Iraq, Israel and Jordan. Democrats criticized his trip as a campaign tour at taxpayer expense – a charge McCain denied.
“I wish every senator would take the same trip that we have taken,” he told reporters. “They would be better informed, and they would be better able to make decisions as to how we can defend the national interests of the United States of America in these times of great challenge.”
Aides said McCain’s campaign reimbursed the government for the London portion of the trip because it included a fundraiser there.
Other Arizona House members have traveled far less. Only Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., has taken no government-sponsored trips.
The figure does not include transportation costs for members who travel on military aircraft because those numbers don’t have to be disclosed in House records. Those flights can cost taxpayers about $10,000 per flight hour.
The general lack of disclosure is what irks Craig Holman of the advocacy group Public Citizen.
“The more they travel the better, especially to Baghdad or Cuba for that matter,” he said. “But it should be an open book to make sure they’re not just going to vacation areas and taking their spouses with them.”